January 2012

Device for putting holes in book signatures

by Suw on January 27, 2012

Whilst watching this video of John Carrera’s project to reprint the Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary, I spotted that he had a nifty little device for putting holes into his book signatures, making sewing large numbers of books much quicker and easier.

Pictorial Webster's Inspiration to Completion-by John Carrera - YouTube

Does anyone know if it’s possible to buy a jig like this? Is this standard bookbinding gear? Or would I have to find someone to make it for me?

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Four Corners: With the sun on my skin

by Suw on January 27, 2012

Further to my post from the other day about my lost Four Corners post, recovered through the power of Twitter, I have dug up another of the essays I wrote for them. I had thought I’d written more, but it turns out there were only two posts, so from rom 26 April 2004, here it is the second:

Memory is synaesthetic. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations – all can prompt the sudden and unexpected recall of an old memory, musty, frayed around the edges and long since consigned to the dustbin of your mind, or so you thought.

Prising myself away from my desk a few weeks ago, I walked the 15 minutes to our nearest corner shop. The sky was a crisp blue, clouds sculled across it like fluffy white boats on a mill-pond sea. It was definitely a spring day, one that might in a few weeks metamorphose into summer, but for the moment it remained a pupa of a day, fat with possibilities but not yet ready to take wing.

That specific combination of the warm sunlight on my skin and the chill the air still held, itself a memory of winter, brought unexpectedly to mind childhood holidays in Cornwall.

Each Easter, my parents would take me and my brother to The Lizard for a couple of weeks, always staying at the Gwendreath Farm Caravan Park. No matter how things changed around us, our yearly holidays would remain a constant, as reliable as the great, graceful dishes at Goonhilly Earth Station that signalled we were close to our destination.

Often, the weather would keep us in the caravan, watching the sea fog roll in, listening to the distant mournful moan of the Lizard lighthouse foghorn, soulfully shooing boats away from the vengeful rocks of the peninsular that forms the southern-most tip of Britain.

Sometimes we’d be lucky, Cornwall’s maritime climate blessing us with sunshine and days on the beach, yet there would always be that nip in the air, a reminder that the weather could change faster than I could get out of my swimsuit and into something warmer.

Our Easter holiday ritual heralded for me the beginning of the end of the school year. Once I got back from Cornwall, the summer term would begin and it would be hardly any time at all before lunchtimes could be spent lying on the grass, contemplating maybe playing tennis tomorrow (although I never got much past the contemplation stage). Then, with indecent haste, exams and hayfever would be upon us, followed smartly by two months off.

My life no longer changes so reliably with the seasons. Easter is no longer a marker of the long summer to come, but instead a reminder that the year is disappearing too fast. I no longer dread June as the month of exams, but instead find myself hoping that I might clear enough off my to-do list that I can guiltlessly take the opportunity afforded by a few sunny days to lounge about in my sarong with a bottle of Pimms and a bowl of strawberries.

The chances of finding eight whole weeks to do nothing except what I want to do have dwindled to nothing – I almost can’t imagine it. I have a hard time imagining even two weeks off. But if I concentrate on the feeling of sun on my face, on that sensation, then there I am again with the sand under my feet, the salt in my nostrils and the squabbling of hungry gulls wheeling above me.

For just a moment, I can remember what it was like when there was nothing to do but explore.

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Four Corners: A little piece of history

by Suw on January 24, 2012

In 2004, I was invited to write for a site called Four Corners. It was one of those blogs that aimed to be an international source of food for thought. Today a friend of mine asked about an old blog post that he remembered about me talking about history, almost as if the country was a palimpsest. All I could find here on Chocolate and Vodka was an excerpt and a link… to a dead site.

Thankfully, through the magic of Twitter we managed to track down the blog that underpinned the main site and which exists now as a rather worn and threadbare Typepad blog. It is almost a palimpsest itself.

Here is the original essay, written on 3 April, 2004, for the sake of history. I shall see if I can comb through the old blog there and pull up some of my other posts, just so that I have them. So much of my early writing has vanished, either trapped in print or lost from the pixels of the internet, so it’s nice to rescue this little bit of it.

It’s everywhere – in the air that fills your lungs, in the ground beneath your feet, in the water you drink. In your teeth. It permeates everything, often unseen, unnoticed, unfelt.

But pause a while, sharpen your senses, plant your heels firmly and connect to the rest of the world. Feel it seep up into your body, feel it circulate in your blood, feel it ebb and flow through you, binding you to the rest of time, to your forebears, to your descendants.

You cannot move in Britain for history. Modern, medieval, prehistory. History is here in abundance. Not just the buildings, in the dark oaken beams of a 13th century coaching inn, the fine sweep of majestic Georgian terraces or the peaceful solitude of a Saxon church built on ground that was sacred long before Christianity was brought to the British Isles.

Here, the earth itself bears visible witness to the past, at places like Maiden Castle or Badbury Rings, where the endeavours of long dead Iron Age villagers whose need to protect that which was precious to them found its answer in the ground. Huge earthworks, tonnes of dirt moved by hand to create formidable ditches and ramparts to keep the enemy out.

There is mystery carved into the living earth too – chalk scars connect to create white horses, military badges, human figures. Some of this history is undoubtedly ancient, such as the Uffington White Horse, the oldest and most graceful chalk horse in England, created in the Bronze Age. Some of this history is relatively new. The Fovant Badges were mainly carved during WWI, in remembrance of the soldiers who had given their lives in bloody combat. But look then at the Cerne Abbas Giant – is it an ancient celebration of virility or a relatively modern hoax?

In fact, even the very vegetation that shrouds the dirt with verdant disguise can be historic. The Monmouth Ash is said to still stand, the very tree where James Scott, Duke of Monmouth hid, trying to escape James II. Trees which have withstood the centuries, oaks or beech or churchyard yew, trees which have watched as the world changed, trees in which children played and from which criminals were hanged.

And this is the thread that runs through all time, uniting the historic with the present: the stories of the people who lived, laid and died in these places.

So much of history can never be told, lost to time. But the coaching inn that is still used as a hotel has seen generations of people come, stay for a while and leave. It has stood as each story unfolded and seen the parallels echo down the years, the same parts played by later generations. How many newly married couples, impatiently divesting each other of their clothes? How many children, frightened of sleeping in strange darkness, seeking the comfort and warmth of their parents’ bed? How many arguments, agreements, compromises?

Human experience shaped history and is shaped by history. Some things never change, we feel the same needs as our forebears, the same emotions, the same sun on our skin. It’s all there, everywhere, in front of you, now.

History. You don’t need to look for it. You just need to see it.

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The best advice for writers, bar none

by Suw on January 21, 2012

Nick Mamatas says it better than I ever could: Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers.

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I was fascinated by this post from Tyler Nichols about his experience providing a freemium Letter from Santa service before Christmas. In short, Tyler had found that few people upgraded from the free version to the paid, and that those who did use the free version were much more likely to send him support queries.

I was wondering as I read how much of this is transferable to ebooks. Is the freemium model a sensible one for writers? Does giving away your work get you a bigger audience of people willing to pay next time round? Or does it just mean that lots of people download your stuff, never read it, and have no interesting in paying for future works?

I’ve always been a big advocate of free and I don’t think I’m convinced that it’s worth giving up on yet, but I did find this comment from Wei on Tyler’s post really interesting:

Freemium works with some business models but in this case, I’m pretty sure it’s not the right play. Freemium works best when you get the customer addicted to the point that they would be willing to pay money to get more of it. It seems like your website gave out the entire product for free and you are asking money for the accessories. Imagine Dell giving you a free laptop then get mad when you choose not to buy the leather case or an extra battery. Unfortunately I think that is how you have setup the site this year.

And this reply from Nate:

I agree. I always thought freemium was best explained in the gaming sense. You can play the game for free (e.g. MafiWars) but if you want the better weapon, or faster upgrades, or one time kill shot, you fork over $5, $10, or $20.

Most people won’t come in and instantly buy 1000 experience points. But after they’ve played for a time, for example a month, and are tired at how slow they upgrade, they fork over $5 for 1000XP without batting an eye. After all, it’s wired up to paypal, and the process is instant.

Giving away a book for free is the Dell model. You are giving someone the entire thing and then hoping that they buy the audiobook or a Kindle version or whathaveyou. But what would be the equivalent of the MafiaWars weapon upgrade? Certainly it’s not the last chapter, because that would essentially be a bait and switch, which is likely to piss people off.

Indeed, what upgrades can a book even have? Are people really interested in author annotations? I would imagine most are not. Audiobooks don’t feel like an upgrade – they aren’t an enhancement as much as they are simply a different version. Once you’ve read the story, you’ve read the story, you know how it ends. The audiobook is probably only attractive to the subset of your readers who like to listen.

So what about merchandise? That relies on the idea that you’re actually selling identity, not a story, and whilst in general terms that’s sort of true, is it true enough to pin a business model to? Or would selling merchandise simply mean that you have more awareness to raise and are taking a bigger risk spending time, effort and possibly money getting your shop set up? Even if you go with only on-demand merch, like t-shirts, there’s still an initial outlay on design, etc., so it’s not completely free.

But games and books are different to, say, software. People really do become enthusiastic fans of games and books, gobbling up every release as soon as it is out, in a way that I suspect isn’t the case for (much) software. I may love a particular app or service, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to upgrade to premium if I don’t need to or that I’m going to go and buy everything else that developer does. If I find an author I love, on the other hand, I will go and raid their back-catalogue without a second thought.

Of course the big problem is that as a newbie author, you don’t have fans, let alone the most valuable kind of hardcore fans that buy every version of everything. Your first and biggest challenge is reaching enough people to find the ones who are interested in becoming your fans. It is a huge hurdle, and although I’m still not sure what the most efficient way of surmounting it is, I do think I’ll be more likely to achieve that with the freemium model than without.

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I’m reminded by Simon Goode of the the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a collection of translated poems by Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyám. In 1912, a version of the book was bound by London bookbinder Francis Sangorski, who had a bit of a thing for shiny. Simon summarises:

The book took more than two years work to produce, bound in full leather with inlays of silver satinwood and mahogany. The Rubáiyát featured more than 1,050 precious and semi-precious stones – rubies, topaz, garnet and turquoise.

The rest of the tragic story is explained in this video:

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What is literary fiction?

by Suw on January 15, 2012

I belong to an internet forum populated by a right bunch of weirdos some lovely people, and in the course of discussions about my survey, the one in which I’m trying to figure out how people discover new books and authors (it’s still open, please answer it!), the question was asked:

So what the hell is Literary Fiction? Is everything else is non-literary fiction?

The answers were far too insightful to just leave them hidden away in our little corner of the web, so I’m happy to say that I have permission to share them with you. Names have been redacted to protect the innocent.

Serious books that aspire to be literature. Full of high falutin ideas and not many knob gags.

You mean books that the reviewer and/or marketer didn’t understand (or finish?) and couldn’t place elsewhere?

And a lack of death-rays, super-villains etc

What’s the difference between “classics” and “literary?”

Classics is old. Literary is new stuff pretending to be good.

I reckon literary fiction is where the prose is so good the plot can afford to be poo. They make great reads but lesser films.

So can I assume “literary” is “everything left over without a genre”? You know, books about people and their problems who aren’t aliens/knights/spies/criminals/women?

Some are good, but some are a navel-gazing wankathons. Try The Finkler Question. Great prose, but sod all happens.

The stuff that wins awards, but nobody actually reads?

I think some of those definitions are pretty much spot on. 😉

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Argleton audiobook now available

by Suw on January 14, 2012

After several days of recording, re-recording and editing, I’m happy to say that the Argleton audiobook is now available on Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-wish basis, with no minimum price (i.e. free download). Due to Bandcamp upload limits, I’ve had to split it into Part 1 and Part 2, but you can buy them as an album which minimises the hassle as much as possible. Once I’ve sold enough, Bandcamp will allow me to upload a bigger file, and then I’ll have enough space to upload the audiobook as a single file.

If you want to sample the wares first, please feel free to stream the book either here on on Bandcamp itself. You can also embed the audio player on your own blog if you so wish.

Please feel free to give it a listen and if you like the sound of it you can grab both files over on Bandcamp.

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William King’s ebook sales figures

by Suw on January 13, 2012

I do love it when authors are honest about the kinds of sales they are making, particularly when they are not the pack leaders like Amanda Hocking or John Locke. I am sure both Amanda and John have worked incredibly hard for the success they currently enjoy, and I’m not slighting them in the least, but they cannot be said to be representative of the majority of writers going the self-publishing route. They are at the very head of the long-tail graph and as such they provide us with much needed hope and inspiration, but I want to know more about writers who are further down the spine, closer to the tail… closer to my position at the arse.

Via Zite I stumbled across William King’s recent blog post about how his four novels, self-published on Amazon, have been doing over the last six months. It’s a fascinating read. His sales numbers start off very small, as you might expect, but wind up being quite respectable: over 1500 for the month of December. His current prices stand at:

  • Death’s Angels – £0.72
  • The Serpent Tower – £2.92
  • The Queen’s Assassin – £2.92
  • Shadowblood  – £2.92

As you might expect, his cheapest title, Death’s Angels sells the best. He says he’s now making about £1900 pcm, which is a pretty decent income and certainly one that would allow me to write full-time.

The most interesting pattern I’m seeing in all this though is nothing to do with prices but is more to do with back-catalogue. A common theme amongst successful self-publishers is that they begin with a handful of books that they’ve written which they can release gradually and which each give the other books a bit of a boost. Having a back catalogue that is a series also allows you to price one book, probably the first, cheaply as a sacrificial lamb to encourage people to try your stuff out and hopefully pay more for your other books. I think this certainly provides an advantage, and is something to think about if you already have some manuscripts in your desk drawer which are currently sitting about doing nothing.

Unfortunately for me, my past manuscripts are either unfinished or shit, so I am just going to have to do this the hard way and write as I go along.

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I’m interested in finding out more from readers about what they like and how they find out about new books and authors. I’m starting off with a very simple two-question survey. Please do take a moment to fill it out! When I’ve got a significant number of responses, I’ll publish the results.

UPDATE: Right, well that all went unexpectedly wrong! SurveyMonkey, it turns out, charges £24 per month to access your data as soon as you go over 100 responses, and I was rapidly heading towards 300. That £24 only pays for the first 1000 responses per month which, given the rate at which they were coming in, didn’t seem like it would last long. If you go over 1000, then you have to pay 10p per response, so if it really took off and I got 2000 responses, that would be £124.

Now, I don’t mind paying for stuff online. I buy a lot of independent software and pay for a number of key web services which I think are good value for money. But SurveyMonkey is taking the piss, frankly. I’d happily pay, say, a fiver per month or a few quid per survey if it came with unlimited responses, but I’m not going to pay £24 per month for such a horribly hobbled service.

So, I have been trying Obsurvey which has far fewer options that SurveyMonkey, but so far getting mixed responses from users as to whether that site is usable. If it turns out to be unusable is another option I can try yet, but I know that the more I change things, the less likely people will be to bother to fill things out. All I can say is sorry!

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Ebook pricing experiment: First (tiny) milestone passed

January 11, 2012

Today I passed the first milestone in my ebook pricing experiment: I have sold as many copies of Argleton in the first 11 days of January as I sold in the four months it was available last year. However, and it’s a big however, I’ve made less than a quarter of the money in royalties […]

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Authors: If you can’t take the heat, stay the hell away from your book’s reviews

January 7, 2012

Today I stumbled across a blog post by KB/KT Grant about how authors who can’t handle negative reviews should really stay away from reading them, and certainly shouldn’t throw a hissy fit about any criticism they get. I hadn’t previously seen any of the examples of authorial meltdown that Grant refers to, but she is absolutely […]

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Argleton New Year Sale, Now On!

January 5, 2012

As a little experiment, I have put the Kindle version of Argleton on sale, so if you’d like to support my writing you can now do so even more cheaply than before! Here are the current prices (the confusion over the US price is because it shows up at $1.20 to me, but I had […]

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