22 February 2010
We all have writing projects that don't get off the ground from time to time. Sometimes it's because we fail to convince editors to commission them. Other times, it's because more exciting projects crowd them out and there isn't time to pursue them.
There was a nice quote from Stephen Fry on a BBC News story about Fry tweeting again (is that news? - that's a discussion for another day, perhaps). Fry was in discussions to write an episode of Dr Who for David Tennant, but it never happened. "The window passed, and I never really got round to it," said Fry. "But I'm very happy to have had the experience of thinking about it."
I had a couple of projects which didn't take off recently, but that's my view of them too. It's a shame they didn't happen, but it wasn't wasted time. I did enjoy the experience of thinking about them. In my case, I got as far as drafting something. But unless I'm reading that draft, what remains is the way I felt about those ideas and the places they transported me to.
Thinking is not writing (as I've said before), but it is part of the process. Often, it's the hardest part of the process. Even though the projects I was working on failed, they excited my imagination and fused together new paths in my brain. Thinking time is never wasted.
05 February 2010
A new freesheet has launched called The London Weekly. On Twitter, it's getting a serious kicking at the moment. People are criticising its amateurish layout, and its inability to spell the name of Phil Tufnell in a front-page headline.
From the photos I've seen, it looks very much like a student newspaper. The design is boxy, it uses centred and multicoloured headlines, and leaves a lot of distracting dead space. I haven't seen a clear enough photo (or a real copy) to read the body text.
But, here are two observations:
- Firstly, if you're going to criticise a publication for having typos in it, be very sure your critique does not include typos itself. I've read two blog posts on the subject of The London Weekly, and they both include errors at least as bad as those they are damning The London Weekly for.
- Secondly, shouldn't we celebrate the daring of this venture? A relatively inexperienced team has gone into a mature market with a new publication. At the end of the day, they were able to say that they actually launched a new newspaper. Okay, so maybe they'll look back on it in future and wish they had the experience or funding to do a better job of it. But, what did you launch today?
02 February 2010
I've been playing with the beta version of Microsoft Office 2010. I'm a big fan of Office 2007 - it made a few enemies by ditching a user interface with over ten years of history behind it. But it does make most activities much quicker to carry out, once you've worked out where they are hiding on the new toolbar.
Office 2010 has a lot of crossover with Office 2007. Lots of people were infuriated by the removal of the File menu in Office 2007 and even more so by the help which told you "IMPORTANT: you can't get it back" (paraphrasing only slightly). Well, Office 2010 has introduced a File tab, which takes you to the backstage area. This is basically about the file settings, and the other stuff that goes on in the background and doesn't affect your document's content or appearance. All the features that used to be behind the Office button in Office 2007 are now found here, and the office button itself has gone. This provides quicker access to a lot of features and saves time hunting between different sub menus to find them.
There are a few new features which might save some time. There's a cool feature for inserting a screengrab into your document. You just select which of the currently running programs you'd like to grab (it must not be minimised), and the image is inserted in your document. For those writing software tutorials, this could save quite a lot of time, although this workflow won't help out with book production much because publishers typically need the images to be separated out.
Word 2010 has a new navigation panel down the left, which adds search to the thumbnails and document map, and makes it easier to switch between them. There are some new text effects too, and a web-based translator built in to the Review tab.
The main new addition to Office 2010 is integration with Skydrive, which enables documents to be stored online so that they can be accessed and edited online and from other machines. This is a response to the rise of Google Documents and other online editing services.
I expect additional new features will come to light as I use Office 2010 more, but for now it seems to be more of an evolution than a revolution. Perhaps just having a File tab where the File menu used to be will be enough to encourage people to give it a go. They'll be pleased they did: the old version of Office hadn't changed very much since 1995, and was designed for much smaller screens than we typically have today. Office 2007 and 2010 more fully exploit the available screenspace to enable you to write more intuitively and quickly.
29 January 2010
According to the Telegraph, a company has made thousands of dollars selling software and fonts to express sarcasm. The so-called SarcMark is a spiral with a dot in the middle, and is supposed to be used like a smiley to tell people when you're being sarcastic.
This is a great little ruse, and full credit to the company for actually shipping their idea. We've all had situations where people haven't understood we're being sarcastic, even in person. And if you want to join in the joke, it's probably worth $2 for the bragging rights.
But this misses a key point: if people can't understand you're being sarcastic, the fix is not to put a squiggle on the end to tell them. There is a saying that using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke, and the SarcMark must surely be even worse. The solution is to make your words work harder: intensify the language you use. When people can't tell you're being sarcastic, your sarcasm isn't good enough. If you know there's a potential source of confusion in your words, rewrite them. Punctuation is not a 'get out of jail free' card.
28 January 2010
Strictly speaking, it's less of a "novel writing competition", and more of a "novel written competition", given the timescales, but Amazon's new promotion is a fantastic opportunity, all the same. One lucky author is going to walk away with a Penguin book deal and an advance of $15,000 (over £9,000).
There are just two categories: general fiction and young adult fiction. Up to 5,000 novels will be accepted into each category. Eligible works are between 50,000 and 150,000 words. Both unpublished and self-published works can be submitted (although works under contract anywhere else are excluded, obviously). The closing date is 7 February 2010, but if you're serious about entering, you should do so as soon as possible. I think there's a good chance this competition will be oversubscribed.
With that many books to try to process, most of them will be entirely unread. Books will be evaluated first on the basis of a 300 word overview, and then in later rounds on the basis of an excerpt. The overview isn't a synopsis: it needs to sell the book's concept and themes, and so is more of a cover letter. Some might think it's unfair that only 300 of their 100,000 words are being read, but this is a microcosm of the entire publishing industry. It's no good having your best bits buried on page 37. Publishers Weekly will review 500 full manuscripts, and Penguin will read 100 of those.
Ultimately, Amazon customers will select the winning novel from a shortlist of six. This is a good way to ensure there is a market for the resulting novel (a bit like Pop Idol on the tellybox), but it does also tend to skew the results towards mainstream works. A romantic comedy is likely to win out over a political satire, purely on the basis of market demand. But the satire might have been the better book, and the better publishing decision if the publisher has ideals beyond market share.
As always with competitions like this, you need to check the small print extremely carefully. By entering this, you're effectively agreeing to Penguin's contract terms and royalty rates unseen, although I think you retain the right to walk away.
To find out more and start preparing your entry, visit the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award microsite.
21 January 2010
Andrew Motion has come out in support of creating writing courses, according to a story in The Times. He said: "People who had no qualms about RADA, or the Royal Ballet School, or the Royal Academy, were wont to say that writing couldn't be taught ... and implied that this sort of tutoring was a form of cheating, like taking steroids if you were an athlete."
His quote is in the context of prize-winning authors. The Times expresses concern that publishers might go fishing for writers on creative writing courses instead of seeking out talent in the wider writing community.
On the one hand, perhaps it's reasonable to expect authors to make an investment in their future and to take their profession seriously. If you want to talk to major publishers about your novel, you need to have a good answer for why they should talk to you. How do you stand out among the thousands of people trying to get their attention? Many of these are wasting their time, so how do you prove you're not? Having an MA shows a level of commitment to your craft that goes above and beyond what most people have invested.
There is a risk, though, that publishing becomes increasingly elitist. It can cost over £7,000 to study for an MA in creative writing, which effectively excludes that option for most writers. And while an MA might show that you've applied yourself to the study, it's no indication of the initial talent you're building on, or the consistency or originality of your ideas. The time required to study for an MA also excludes many people who could write (or indeed have written) a novel.
While an MA will certainly be of intellectual and creative value, does it make good business sense? The Bookseller reported last year that mid-list authors are having their advances cut. Are publishers offering higher advances to authors with an MA? That seems unlikely. It might take two or more novels before the investment in the MA is repaid, unless the first book turns out to be a massive hit.
17 December 2009
Windows Live Writer is free desktop software for writing blogs, created by Microsoft. It's a much quicker way to write, preview and publish blogs than using Blogger's web interface, and it's compatible with a wide range of blog publishing systems (including Wordpress). I was impressed at how it imported my blog template to provide a fast and realistic preview.
But, and this is a big but, it cannot handle the pound sign. If you type it in from the keyboard, it gets converted into typographic junk on the published blog. If you add the correct HTML entity in the HTML mode, it is converted back into the pound character (which does not publish correctly) if you preview or use the visual edit mode. Basically, to fix pound signs, you'll probably have to log in to Blogger (or Wordpress perhaps, if this fault applies there too) to fix it.
It might seem like a minor flaw, but if I'm going to use a tool for blogging, I'd rather use one tool and know it works. I don't want to find I can't write about the currency of my country and many others without engaging in ridiculous workarounds.
A good piece of software has been spoiled by poor testing and internationalisation.
The Evening Standard carried out an auction of unique experiences in aid of a children's charity, with the winning bids reported in yesterday's paper. What surprised me is how much people are willing to bid to have a taste of work as a writer, photographer or other media professional. Below are the media-related bids (in bold), together with a selection of other bids to give you an idea of how they compare.
- £14,600 - Dinner for 12 cooked by Gordon Ramsay (highest bid for any lot)
- £14,000 - A day with Richard Branson
- £8,100 - Two tickets for the 2010 final of Strictly Come Dancing
- £7,153 - A week on the Evening Standard's "fast-paced, hectic" newsdesk
- £5,600 - Tea with Elton John
- £5,450 - A two-week internship at Island Records, mentored by Duncan Beese who signed Amy Winehouse
- £5,300 - Dinner with the Evening Standard's editor at his favourite Notting Hill restaurant
- £3,958 - A two-hour art class with Tracey Emin
- £3,600 - Dance lesson with Anton du Beke
- £3,115 - Afternoon tea with TV and radio presenter Claudia Winkleman
- £3,100 - Artworks by Gilbert and George
- £2,801 - Take part in a Vogue fashion photo shoot (not clear whether this is as a model or helping to shoot it)
- £2,550 - A week's work experience on ES magazine
- £2,550 - Mentoring with James Caan from Dragon's Den
- £2,070 - Join BBC Five Live in the media centre at Lord's for the Test against Bangladesh
- £1,982 - Caroline Michel, boss of literary agency PFD, will critique your manuscript and give you guidance on publishing
- £1,470 - Two guests have "unprecedented access" to the Match of the Day studio
- £1,200 - A springtime stroll around the park with Bob Geldof
- £1,100 - Four people chauffeured to work by Rowan Atkinson in a Rolls Royce
Is it becoming that difficult to break into media that people are willing to pay £1,430 per day to work on the Evening Standard's news desk? Is it so hard to get the attention of an agent that somebody would rather pay £1,982 than go the long way around? Will work experience in the media deliver a better return on investment than artworks by Gilbert & George?
Of course, people don't really think like that. If they want something, they bid what they can afford to try to win it. They don't compare the lots. But I'm surprised that mentoring from James Caan (which I can see really helping a lot of businesses to reinvent themselves) is considered less valuable than a week's work experience on the ES Magazine. I'm surprised that dinner with a newspaper editor is more highly prized than time with Bob Geldof, Sebastian Coe, Jonathan Ross, Sophie Dahl, the Duchess of York, Stephen Fry and the QI team, footballer Harry Redknapp, director Guy Ritchie, Graham Norton and artist Anish Kapoor (who all featured in lower ranking bids).
20 November 2009
From time to time, I get emails from people who tell me they have the greatest story ever that they need help breaking. Sometimes it's a crime story, and other times it's a big political story. Occasionally, it's a campaigning-style story.
I know what you're thinking because I think it too: why me? My journalism experience hasn't yet stirred national newspapers, and my specialist subjects to date have been technology, business and music.
I never know how to respond to these people. Some of them are genuine people, trying to help others out, and struggling to draw attention to something the world should know about. Some of them are just trying to help themselves out, and use the press as a weapon against their opponents. Some of them might actually be insane.
For those who have uncovered a genuine injustice, I usually feel there are others far better placed to break the story. There are people who understand their way around parliament, who have friendly lawyers to advise them, and who know how to get stories of that type into print. I would face a steep learning curve. I do sympathise with many of these stories, but I don't have the time, experience or energy to help. Although I might admire those who are campaigning for justice, I can't give more than a one-time friendly email offering support.
Those who are using the press as a weapon against their opponents often appear to have a valid case, or at least a right to be heard. Sometimes they're being oppressed. After all, the most powerful people have easy access to the media, and it's the less powerful people who can struggle to get heard. But again I don't have the right experience to make these stories fly. Nor do I have the time to really vet the stories so that I can blog about them with confidence in their accuracy. I don't believe that journalists must be impartial, but I do believe that they must base their opinions on facts, which means a lot of independent research.
For the people who show signs of paranoia and instability, I've tried to bow out gracefully and wish them the best with their story. They inevitably won't stop emailing.
I've never broken a national news story before, but if I were planning to, this is what I'd do:
- Try to identify a named journalist with a professional interest in my story. That might be somebody working on a national newspaper, local newspaper, trade magazine, or website with a significant relevant audience. Ideally somebody with a history of breaking stories, but that would probably be quite hard to find. Private Eye is a fine news publication, and if the story were relevant for one of their columnists, they'd be near the top of my list. I wouldn't automatically go to the Sunday Times or email everybody that Google says is a journalist.
- If it is possible to get proof using my skills, I'd make sure I do that before approaching anyone. I often receive emails that say I'd need to do a lot of work digging up proof, which means I'm being offered a rumour to investigate, and some of the rumours are too outlandish to justify investigation without more to go on.
- Prepare my pitch: a short description of the story, how it can be proven to be true, how I came across it, and who I am in relation to the story. Ideally, my pitch would be something like 'I have proof that [this person] has [done this]'. My own credibility is important here too.
- Telephone the journalist. Check first whether they're on deadline, if not, start to tell them about the story. Let them lead the conversation. They will know the right questions to ask to work out whether the story has legs for them or not. I think the stuff I've prepared for my pitch will answer their top four questions.
- Send them what they need, or arrange to meet if that's what they need.
- If I couldn't break the story using the conventional press, I'd research it and write it myself and put it on the internet. I'd then run a PR campaign online to draw attention to the story from other websites, attract links and embed the story in social networks (Facebook etc). I'd see if once the story had been broken, I could get the press to pick up on that: eg '[name] has published evidence that proves that...'
- If I wanted to try to make money from the story, I'd research it thoroughly, write it up, and then pitch it as a freelance contribution to relevant publications. Alternatively, I'd try to sell it as a tip-off. The difficulty with both approaches is that tabloids in particular have a track record of not paying up, and sometimes it's hard to negotiate the value of the story without giving it away. If the story warrants it, I'd consider writing a book and trying to get the book published, including serialisation in the press. I have assumed, though, that most people emailing me aren't looking to make money from their stories.
(To clarify: I am still happy to receive emails from people who are approaching me because they know their idea is relevant to my interests, perhaps based on what they've read on this website. Personally addressed emails get more attention, and emails that explain why I'm being approached will almost always get a personal reply).
16 October 2009
Phew! I've finished drafting 'Social Networking for the Older and Wiser' now. It's been a great few months, digging deep into social networks. Some of them are networks that I wouldn't naturally have come across before (such as Saga Zone), and others are networks that I'm a big fan of (including Facebook, Twitter and 43Things).
At times it was confusing dealing with multiple logins, having multiple versions of myself out there in cyberspace, making friends with each other (myself?) and chatting away. But apart from that, it was great fun and wonderful to take on another book-length project and to complete it in a few months. (My previous book was a novel that took two years).
The shape of the book changed during drafting. The original plan was to dedicate a chapter each to 13 social networks, but it became clear during drafting that it would be a more useful book if it focused its attention on leading networks. The book covers 9 different social networking sites in detail now, with an appendix dedicated to introducing the other networks out there.
From now, the book goes through a technical editor, comes back to me to make any final edits, and then goes off for design. I should see the page proofs in December, it should be printed early 2010, and in the shops in February.
I've set up a dedicated page for the book now and will add to this over time, building up a minisite with more information on the book. The plan is to include the table of contents, excerpts, all the links on one page (so you don't have to type them in), reviews, and other goodies. If there's anything you find particularly useful or interesting on book websites, let me know and I'll see if I can add it for you.
The book can be preordered from Amazon now. Amazon guarantees that you will pay the lowest price between when you order and when the book is published.
30 September 2009
Generally speaking, I recommend publishing free chapters of books online. Readers can thumb through the real book in a shop to get a flavour of what it's like, but to stimulate sales online, a free sample is essential.
However, this only applies if the book is good. If, say, you're a former Eastenders actress who has got a book deal purely on your name; and every paragraph you write makes readers wince; and your publisher thought it would be funnier to deny you the services of a decent copyeditor; then the following advice applies: on no account publish the first chapter online.
I cannot describe how awful Martine McCutcheon's first chapter is in a way that will make you appreciate the horror. It's repetitive, has weak characterisation, banal dialogue, awful description, terrible brand placement, lots of irrelevant chit-chat and filler. Nothing happens. It's like a case study in how not to write a story.
This is the first of three novels she is threatening to unleash. I'm certain she's not working with a ghost-writer (she could afford a good one, if she were). I've got nothing against her personally and it's great that she's exploring her creativity and learning to write novels. Everyone has their story to tell, and is entitled to their creativity.
But, Pan MacMillan, really? Shouldn't you have passed this one by? Waited until she had more finely tuned her craft before unleashing it on the nation? Offered her coaching maybe so that she met the basic standards for publication before going ahead with it? Given her an editor, perhaps? Celebrities get signed because they're guaranteed to shift units, but this book is so bad I can't even see it doing that.
09 August 2009
There's a self-publishing fair planned for 27 September in East London, organised by Publish and be Damned. If you're a self-publisher, you can apply for a place at the fair now to promote and sell your publications. If you're a reader, why not put the date in your diary and plan to go along? You'll find a thriving independent press which you might otherwise not come across, and will doubtless find lots of new ideas.
23 July 2009
Reuters has made its journalism handbook available for free download and reading online, for the first time. It provides an interesting overview of how Reuters sees the role of the journalist, and includes a comprehensive guide to Reuters style.
The style guide is vital for creating a consistent style and voice across the output of Reuters' whole workforce. Consistency is important to avoid distracting the reader, and style guides highlight many of the areas where discrepancies can occur which you probably hadn't thought of before.
The guide also highlights mistakes that writers often make, but shouldn't. There's guidance there on the difference between 'advice' and 'advise', and there's an entry on 'advance planning'. You should be able to guess their views on that, but it wouldn't be in the guide if nobody ever wrote it.
I'm a bit of a style guide collector. Every editor has his own pet peeves, and it's fun to spot the stuff that's only there because it drives the editor up the wall. If you haven't written to a style guide before, adopting one will make you a better writer. It will prompt you to think about the words you use, and the ideas they convey, and it will help make your writing invisible so your message can shine through.
Other online style guides include The Guardian style guide and The Times Style Guide. Please let me know if you're aware of any others.
20 July 2009
As you might have heard, I'm burrowing deep into social networks at the moment to write about them for a new book, which will be published by Wiley early next year. The book is entitled "Social Networking for the Older and Wiser" and will provide friendly guidance on using the internet to find old friends, make new friends, and socialise online.
I'll be updating this site with more information over time, including a breakdown of the websites and tools that will be covered, a free sample and helpful resources.
The blog might go a bit quiet while I'm focusing on the book. I don't tend to write much about writing while I'm doing it (firstly, it's a distraction, and secondly I don't flatter myself that people are sufficiently interested in how I work).
If you're ultra-keen, Social Networks for the Older and Wiser is available now for pre-order on Amazon. (Yes, they're using a slightly different title to me, but I'll have to clarify that later). Amazon's pre-order guarantee means that if the price drops at any time between your order and the publication date (even for a day), you'll only be charged the lower price. I've used it before (for the Prince O2 book/CD set) and am happy to recommend it.
If you're connected to me on any social networking sites, please excuse any weirdness that might happen to my profile as a result of testing out different features. You might occasionally see two of me. And if you think that's odd, I'll actually be both of them, having a conversation between myselves.
14 July 2009
I recently attended a talk by Michelle Harrison, author of The Thirteen Treasures, which won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize 2009. Michelle was wearing a red top, because wearing something red is one of the ways you can protect yourself against fairies.
In The Thirteen Treasures, a 13-year-old girl can see fairies, but they're nasty and punish her for talking (or even writing) about them. The girl (Tanya) gets the blame for the mess the fairies make, and is always in trouble with her mum. When Tanya is sent to her grandmother's house to give her mother a break from all the chaos and destruction, she comes across a girl in the woods. That girl, it transpires, was the same one who disappeared 50 years ago. How is that possible? The book unravels the mystery, and the part that the fairies play in it.
It was inspiring to hear about Michelle's journey to publication. We occasionally see stories in the press about authors who get a lucky break, but don't so often hear about those who persevere through countless rejections.
This is what Michelle's journey to publication looked like:
- Spent a year drafting
- Sent draft to publisher
- Three months later, received a rejection
- Sent book to six agents
- Five said no
- One said they liked it, but didn't want to represent it yet
- Michelle edited the book using their feedback, and sent it back
- They sent a longer reply, outlining bits they still didn't like
- Michelle edited it, and sent new versions back to the agent three or four times, incorporating new feedback, over a period of 18 months
- The agent turned it down
- Michelle took another look at the book herself, decided she didn't like one of the characters and rewrote to make the character stronger
- She spent "the longest time" on a cover letter to go with this submission, and then approached the top agent on her list, a name she had been too intimidated to approach before
- They asked to meet up and then quickly signed up to represent the book. It had taken four years to get to that point.
- The agent shopped the book around publishers
- A number of publishers rejected the book, with some requesting that the book be edited for a younger audience
- Simon and Schuster signed the book
During Michelle's journey to publication, there were many points at which she could have given up. Winning the Waterstone's prize is as much a testament to her perseverance as her imagination and talent for writing.
09 July 2009
Chris Anderson's new book is called "Free", and is all about the history and future of giving things away in business. Contrary to some reports, it doesn't argue that everything should be free - it just looks at how giving some things away can enable you to sell some other things.
Some people have argued that authors should give away their work for free. The idea is that the reputation that builds as a result of that opens doors for consulting work, lecturing, media appearances and so on. Personally I'm not convinced by that argument: it means you have to work twice to get paid once, and it also means that your job changes from writer to consultant/lecturer/talking head, which is probably not what you really want to be. The writing just becomes marketing, rather than the focus of your creative and working life.
I can see how making things free can help to attract an audience, though, if you can afford to do so. At a time when it's hard enough to fight for people's attention, fighting for their money too is an uphill struggle.
Anderson's book is available in a couple of free formats. You can download the unabridged audiobook for free at Wired's website. The abridged audiobook will cost $7.50 from outlets including Audible. The thinking is that busy people might be prepared to pay more to save time. It's counterintuitive to charge more for less, but I do listen to a lot of audiobooks but can't ever remember getting through an unabridged one. The audio format just isn't as convenient as a real book for full-length works.
The ebook is available at Scribd, and embedded below, but you can't download or print the PDF. For more comfortable viewing, click the button in the top right of the box to view full screen. So much of the content on Scribd is there without the author's permission, so this promotion will also bring a lot of credibility to the Scribd platform.
The audio formats will remain free forever, but the ebook formats will be available for just one month. If all else fails you could always stump up for the hardback.
UPDATE: The Scribd version of Free has now been withdrawn, after five weeks and 170,000 reads.
01 July 2009
If you've been following me on Twitter, you might have seen that I've just signed a book contract. It's a non-fiction book that will be coming out early next year and I'll have more details to share soon.
In the meantime, I'm starting a free email magazine. Once a month, I'll write a short newsletter about interesting stuff I've found online. I'm looking forward to writing some snippets about online games, music reviews and so on and I'm hoping that the newsletter can work as a publication in its own right.
It will also provide me with an opportunity to tell people about my books when they come out, and hopefully to help start word of mouth around them where appropriate. The email newsletter will also enable me to keep in touch with people who don't visit this website regularly or don't subscribe to the RSS feeds or Twitter feed, but the focus will very much be on adding value. I want this to be a publication that people enjoy receiving and reading.
If you'd like to subscribe (thank you!), there's a form on the right hand side of this page right now. Just enter your name and email address, and (optionally) let me know what content you're most interested in on this site. When you click the button, you'll be sent an email with a link in it. You need to click that link to confirm your subscription, to make sure that people don't sign others up.
If you previously subscribed to one of my mailing lists, I'll drop you a line, but please do sign up using the form if you've got a couple of seconds. It'll save me a lot of time! Thank you!
30 April 2009
Last week was the London Book Fair, attended by publishers, authors and Flanimals (pictured, right).
It was interesting to see how digital books were received at the fair. There was an area at the back of the hall given over to ebooks and digital publishing, and the seminars there were packed out. But it seemed to be led by the technology, rather than the content. There were plenty of firms who could help you to repurpose and distribute your content for mobile platforms (including the iPhone and Sony Reader), but I didn't notice anybody promoting digital content.
I didn't see any discussion about how ebooks can be different to print books. A certain amount of this is built into the device (eg searchability), but there is lots of potential to create new types of content based on the written word. Mindsportlive is developing iPhone apps based on its card packs, including '52 Ways to Beat Stress', but it was very much the exception.
It's partly the nature of shows like this that means major publishers would sideline their digital offerings. If you're negotiating rights, a printed book looks more impressive. Experienced publishers can get a measure of the content quickly. With ebooks, you can't tell how big they are, how well proofread they are in the middle, whether the book's consistently structured and so on without flicking through a lot of virtual pages. There's not a 'flick through until something catches my eye' button on any of the devices I've seen. Also, since the ebooks are often sold directly, they probably don't belong at a show that's partly about negotiating print book distribution and sales with intermediaries.
One company from Russia has an interesting proposition for interactive physical products - it markets hardback comic books for adults, with an enclosed music CD and CD-Rom. On the CD-Rom is a Flash animation that brings the comic book to life, and the CD contains atmospheric music that goes with the story. The project has been led by the music, with the creator being a musician first and commissioning illustration to expand on his work, which is an interesting way to create value at a time when it's increasingly difficult to sell music. For more information, check out the Ylotana website.
The Espresso Book Machine for printing on demand attracted a lot of attention. The Blackwell bookshop in Charing Cross Road will now be able to print books on demand using the machine, which was demonstrated at the fair. The device is a great way to increase effective footage in an expensive store, and it means many books need never go out of print. But it also transforms the bookseller into a book distributor. Surely the point of a bookshop is that you can browse and discover new titles you wouldn't have otherwise read? Isn't the idea that the bookshop can sell you books you didn't already know about? Print on demand is likely to require the shopper to ask for a specific book to be printed, although it is theoretically possible for displays to be mounted to showcase print-on-demand books, enabling infinite sales based on one shelf copy.
Other news from the show: Simon Pegg's writing a book for publication in October (hurrah!). It's an autobiography/memoir (err... okay). Enid Blyton is coming back from the dead with six new stories being ghostwritten in her (presumably trademarked) name. She wrote over 700 stories when she was alive, so you wouldn't think there would be a need for this. I wonder whether we'll see the day when John LennonTM releases a new album? Perhaps we have more respect for the personal creativity of songwriters than we do of book authors. Or perhaps it just needs another fifty years before The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zepellin and Abba become brand names attached to ghostwritten work.
While at the show, I got some useful feedback on my novel University of Death from successful self-publishers, including Pauline Rowson, who writes and publishes crime fiction and business books. She has given me some great ideas for how I can make the book (or my next book) more marketable. Shows like this are always a good opportunity to pick up new ideas - I came back home with more ideas than I know what to do with.
The press office at Internet World today was giving out press packs, including all press releases, on USB keys instead of on paper.
These digital copies are useful for when a journalist returns to the office and might want to cut and paste together material from the press pack to incorporate it in a story (come on, let's not pretend that doesn't happen). But the real purpose of a press release at a trade show is to direct the journalist to the stand to find out more. Isn't it?
Without having the press release in an easily readable form, there's a risk a journalist might miss an opportunity to follow up on a story because he or she didn't know about it until after the show closed.
25 February 2009
Leo Babauta is the author of 'The Power of Less', a book that aims to help everyone cut through the noise and clutter so they can focus on what really matters. In this exclusive interview for my website, Babauta reveals how the principles of his book apply to writers.
11 January 2009
My novel University of Death was mentioned briefly on Radio 4's Saturday Live, yesterday (at approximately 44:30mins if you want to listen again). I emailed the programme to ask Joanna Trollope for tips on writing titles for novels, given that the title 'University of Death' has put off as many people as it has intrigued.
Joanna's advice was that she follows the model of the 19th century novel, and keeps the title short, plain and descriptive, but she says that the music industry might need something a bit more hip than her book titles. I already have a one word title in mind for my next novel, which follows Joanna's guidelines closely, so perhaps I'm on the right track with that.
As well as getting some free advice from a leading author, it's nice to get a short mention on Radio 4 for my book, including the author, title and subject matter. Radio 4 has 9.45 million listeners, and it's extremely difficult for independent authors to reach an audience of that size.
15 December 2008
Over the years, I've received quite a few queries from website visitors asking me about whether a journalism course they're considering is any good or not. I've usually declined to comment because it's not fair to judge courses I haven't been on, but I've now uploaded some guidelines to help people pick the right educational path for their journalism career.
The article answers the following questions from readers:
- I'm 14 years old and I'm picking my exam subjects. What will be useful in my chosen career as a journalist? Should I pick history or geography?
- Should I take a course in journalism?
- Should I study for a degree in journalism?
- I'm thinking about quitting my degree studies to work as a journalist now. Is this a good idea?
- What about correspondence courses in journalism?
- Can you tell me if this [named] course is any good please?
- What else do I need to do while I'm training?
25 November 2008
I often write case studies. This involves interviewing people to get them to tell me how great a particular product or service is, and then writing that up on behalf of the supplier so it can be used for marketing purposes.
I have two killer questions I always end the call with. First, what would you say to others thinking about using [the product]? That usually results in a direct endorsement which can otherwise be hard to stitch together from the interview. Secondly, I ask what the best thing is about the product or supplier. Even in a long interview where the interviewee is now repeating the same answer to distinctly different questions, that tends to throw up something new and interesting.
Yesterday I was researching a story about a giant IT transformation project, of the kind that only true industry leaders can attempt. I asked the project manager "what would you say is the best thing about [supplier]?" There was a long pause, so I knew he was going to come up with something well considered, something that would bring a new light to the dry technology story we had so far.
"The best thing about them?" he said. "Their name. I just like the way it sounds when you say it."
14 November 2008
I've hung around in a few writing forums over the last two years, and one of the things that newcomers often say is that they really want to write a book but they can't think of anything to write about. That seems the wrong way around to me. The best writing is driven by a story the author really wants to tell, rather than being a bunch of words looking for an idea.
Still, everyone needs inspiration. My top tip is to read the 'And finally...' stories in newspapers. The stuff that actually happens in real life is far stranger than what you could possibly dream up, and just gathering ideas from these short reports is bound to make something spark. One of my favourite cuttings from the last two years was about a Chinese man who hired a woman to pretend to be his girlfriend so that his wife could beat her up, believing it really was the girlfriend. The cutting was only about 40 words, but there's three different characters hinted at there - such great potential for a piece of short fiction.
Here's another gem from today's news. According to the BBC, a German prisoner who was working in a stationery workshop mailed himself out of the prison. He climbed into a cardboard box, slapped a stamp on the top and then got freighted out. Once he was safely outside the jail, he cut his way out of the box and the lorry and ran away. If somebody had written that in a book, it would have seemed perhaps a little far-fetched. It goes to show that truth really can be stranger than fiction.
21 October 2008
Shorter sentences rock.
23 September 2008
I've just finished reading 'University of Death'. After it was published, I left it alone for a while. To be honest, I'd spent so long editing and writing it, that there were bits I could virtually recite by heart. I didn't want to read it.
But over the last couple of weeks I re-read it, from the start to the end. The point of reading it again was to pick up any errors that need fixing, and I found a few including one obvious counting error. While I will be fixing those errors for subsequent copies, I won't be tampering with editing any copy now, however tempting it is to refine the odd sentence.
Given that so much time has passed since I wrote it, the experience was as close as I can get to that of a real reader. It was always going to be a bit weird, though, because as I read the book, part of me knew that I'd written it. From my limited experience, reading my own novel felt like watching myself on TV - I came up to a bit that made me feel uncomfortable, and I would sort of squint through my fingers at it, even though I knew loads of other people had already seen it.
I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten. Some of my favourite bits this time around were the passages I couldn't remember writing, perhaps because they were the bits that I had read less during development and so had less chance to grow tired of. Maybe also because they were the bits that had been polished less, and so were a bit more energetic.
Having some distance from the book changed my perception on it. The bits I was worried might be weak stood up surprisingly well. The bits that were my favourite at the time of writing were fine, but not consistently among the strongest sections.
I think there are some Easter eggs in there for people who re-read it. Some of the central relationships seem different second time around when you know how the story ends. There are a few continuity gags (Marian misinterpreting band names, how Silent But Violent is described) and there are some jokes that people have told me they missed first time around (why the woman working in Starbucks was so grumpy, who Marian sent to chase Simon and Fred out of the building). They're not always set up as proper jokes, but I'm pleased that I didn't draw too much attention to them and just left them as amusing discoveries.
As a whole, I was pleased with how the story was structured and how it all came together at the end. I enjoyed the journey that the characters took me on. It was like visiting old friends.
05 September 2008
Gosh! It's a good week for book PR. Writers' Forum has published a great story about the tool I've created to enable books to be signed over the internet. It uses a virtually unknown feature of Internet Explorer to send a font of the author's handwriting over the web. The technique enables dedications to be customised with the recipient's name (and potentially, other details too). You can try the tool out by getting your copy of 'University of Death' signed now.
It's great story in the magazine, half a page including my photo and a cover shot. It's nice to be mentioned in the same story as Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, too.
I've offered to help other authors to set up the same facility on their websites. Drop me a line, if you're interested. You'll need to have FTP access to your server, but if you're happy with that, then I can talk you through the steps to get the rest of it working.
Writers' Forum issue 85 is available now from WH Smiths (and probably some other shops too). Nice joke on the front cover about writing for Australian markets, too, with the strapline printed upside down.*
*(It would have been funnier if the article had been laid out upside down, particularly if the unrelated right hand column had been left the right way up. But I guess there has to be a line somewhere.)
04 September 2008
I've created a simplified widget and Facebook application based on my Writing Wisdom Widget. The simplified version can also be added to iGoogle, blogs and websites easily, although in all cases it lacks the advanced customisation of the version here.
If you're on Facebook, please consider adding the application and feel free to use the new or old version of the quotes widget on your website or blog.
14 August 2008
You might already have heard of Garfield Minus Garfield, a cartoon strip created by Dan Walsh by editing Garfield out of the original cartoon strips. You're left with Jon, a lonely man who appears to be slowly cracking up. The empty frames create a sense of time crawling along.
Creative projects like that are risky - it's not uncommon for the original artists and writers to stamp out unauthorised derivative works. Jim Davis, though, has been supportive. He told The Washington Post (and much kudos to Walsh for getting his site covered there) that the site was "an inspired thing to do" and he wanted to thank Walsh for "enabling him to see another side of Garfield".
Now, there's going to be a book that puts the original Garfield strips alongside Walsh's edited strips. This seems like a great way for Davis to celebrate Garfield's 30th birthday, and it's a nice model for how cartoon strip writers can involve readers and package user generated content commercially.
I'm curious about how Walsh's creative input is being recognised - I doubt he's getting a half share as co-author, but I hope that his creativity is being compensated fairly. Particularly since a lot of people who have never bought a Garfield book might be inspired to do so because of the 'Minus Garfield' juxtaposition.
Scott Adams has mashups on his Dilbert site, which enable readers to replace his final frame with their own punchlines. Visitors can vote on which jokes they like best. This could make for a great book too, although the main value is the way that it involves the readers with the work and inspires them to visit Adams' site every day.
I have heard a conspiracy theory that the Fred Bassett cartoons are all missing a final frame which contains the punchline, which is why they're mostly unfunny. Perhaps that could be the next candidate for a writer-reader mashup?
12 August 2008
07 August 2008
Here's a website recommendation I've been meaning to make for a while: Readitswapit. You upload a list of books you're prepared to swap. You can then find people who have books you want and ask them if they want to trade. If so, they get the pick from your list. You both post the books at your own expense, within two days, and then leave feedback on each other.
The system works very well, drawing in book descriptions and artwork automatically from Amazon. The process assumes every book is equally valuable, which you could argue is a flawed assumption. But if you're parting with a book you don't need any more, it doesn't really matter.
I've made a few successful swaps on there, releasing old books that were cluttering up the place and replacing them with new books I really want to read. I should confess I have cheated, though: I have swapped books I never got around to reading, which seems to go against the site's ethic as expressed in its title (assuming it is read that rhymes with red). Still, if you don't tell anyone, I think I'll get away with it.
09 July 2008
Based on my experience publishing my novel University of Death through Lulu.com, I've written twelve tips for self publishers on using Lulu.com. I hope they will be useful to people who are considering working with the site, or to those who are in the early stages of planning their publications. If anyone's got any questions about using Lulu, let me know and I'll update that page with responses to those questions.
13 June 2008
This is a poster that was in the gents' toilet at a plush hotel where I was a wedding guest recently. I thought it was a great piece of copy, so I took a photo of it.
I think what impressed me was the way it addressed its audience directly (men), its economy with words (less than 80), and its subtle call to action (be spontaneous and book now!). The cheeky tone worked well where it was, and the fact it was just printed on hotel stationery made it seem more personal as well. It wouldn't have been nearly as effective if it had been printed on glossy paper by a central marketing division. I should add that this was positioned by the exit, rather than around the urinals where adverts always seem tacky.
11 June 2008
I've created a virtual book signing program and posted it on this website. Because copies of 'University of Death' go straight from the factory to readers, the only way that readers could get their copy signed was if they met me and happened to be carrying their copy of the book at the time.
Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, you can get your book signed and dedicated online, using an authentic handwriting font.
Because this requires font embedding, this feature is only compatible with Microsoft Internet Explorer.
University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now
09 June 2008
There's a couple of articles I've already promised, and a couple more I've been wanting to write for a while. When I get some time, I've got plenty of ideas for things to write in my notebook.
I hesitate to say this, but I'm also batting around an idea for another novel. I'm not sure I have the energy to devote to writing a book at the moment, although it's tempting to try blitzing it Nanowrimo-style, to see how much I can write in a month. The idea concerns another facet of popular culture (not the music industry this time), and would have a different tone to University of Death.
It's not the first idea I've had since finishing UoD. I had one idea that I can now see was rubbish, although it was briefly exciting. But this new idea is gnawing at me. It's got to the stage where I'm dreaming about bits of it, so I might just try a little writing experiment soon to see if it goes anywhere.
21 May 2008
While I was writing my novel 'University of Death', I read quite a few books about writing and kept an eye out for inspiring quotes from famous authors and writers. They include Stephen King, Shakespeare, Truman Capote, Peter Cook and Christopher Isherwood among others.
I've packaged up a selection of my favourites in this free writing quotes widget, which you can customise and incorporate in your own website or blog. It's free to use. The only condition is that you keep the link back to this site and don't modify the code.
20 May 2008
You can now print your own bookmark for University of Death and download Dove's soundcheck MP3 from MySpace or embed it in your MySpace profile.
I previously made bookmarks available for Small Business Websites That Work, and it turned out to be a fairly popular feature. I haven't seen anyone else doing printable bookmarks, which surprises me. For authors where the readers have bought into the merchandising as much as the stories, it could prove to be a popular website feature. And for all authors, it's nice to give readers the opportunity to download a souvenir when they visit their websites.
11 May 2008
I've always been a keen magazine reader, the kind of person who checks the news-stands every day to see what's new and writes the on-sale dates of some magazines in his diary. Back in the 80s, I read Crash and Amstrad Action avidly; in the 90s, I bought either Melody Maker or NME each week (and often both); and today I read the glossy monthly music mags. One of my favourites is Record Collector, so I'm thrilled that they've published a four-star review of my novel 'University of Death' in the latest issue.
"Raising a number of surprisingly sophisticated issues, this book is enjoyably cynical about the seemingly cold-hearted and impenetrable nature of the record industry and peppered with a number of highly comical cameos from the cream of rock'n'roll, which ensures that it never feels like heavy going."
- Lewis Heritage, books reviewer, Record Collector magazine issue 350 (June 2008)
Record Collector is one of the magazines I trust to tell me about music and books I'll want to read, and it's one I look forward to consulting each month, so I really am delighted that their writer enjoyed my book and has recommended it to other readers.
24 April 2008
There was an advert in Metro last week that read:
We are looking for brilliant new writers to submit entries for our first series of short novels and novellas. Deadline: June 1Adverts seeking 'new writers' are not uncommon - they are typically placed by organisations that sell a publishing service and charge authors to put their books into print. There's not usually any marketing of the title because the company makes its money off printing books and selling them to authors in bulk, and not off selling them to the general public.
The website behind this ad is Roastbooks. From the limited details online, the company's model is to market books through unconventional outlets (eg cafes, airport lounges). White Ladder Press is among the companies pioneering this approach (see The White Ladder Diaries, an entertaining and informative book about setting up a self-publishing operation, which rather unfortunately stops before the operation generates any profit).
I know many people are desperate to get into print, but Roastbooks' terms and conditions are hopelessly optimistic. There's no mention of any advance or royalty rates, but by entering the competition, authors are expected to grant the publisher 'the sole, exclusive option, until two months after the publication of the results of this competition, to enter into a publishing agreement in respect of the submitted manuscript'. I'm not a lawyer, but the language appears to suggest the option belongs to Roastbooks and authors submitting work are basically stuck with the contract the publisher chooses to foist upon them. There's no clause for the rights to revert to the author if the competition results are never announced, or are announced late, either. Roastbooks makes no commitment to a print run, or to any other media, but does require all rights worldwide.
We've seen publishers engaging in rights grabs over the last ten years, but usually from a position of strength. For a new publisher to expect authors to hand over exclusive rights for no return (not even the promise to publish the novel) is highly irregular. The publisher is candid enough to admit that it won't be able to get books into high street book shops, and it's a lot easier for authors to self-publish than it used to be. It's not clear what Roastbooks is doing for the author that the author could not more profitably do for him- or herself.
Few good writers will want to work with an untested publisher that doesn't appear to respect their rights. For that reason, I can't see a future for the company. New publishers would do well to see authors as potential business partners rather than raw materials.
15 April 2008
I blogged about Amazon's Kindle, a new ebook reader, when it launched. But I didn't look at the opportunity for self-publishers then.
So what's the opportunity at Kindle? Not much for me, it seems. You need to have a US postal address and US bank account details before they will let you publish any content. You can't even publish content for free and use Kindle as a promotional outlet (ebooks must be priced between $0.99 and $200, and you still need to be in the US). Given how slow Amazon's been in internationalising other features like Amazon Honor System, none of that is likely to change any time soon.
My friend John went through the motions of setting up a publication anyway, and has blogged about that experience.
There are a couple of terms that might worry some self-publishers. Firstly:
3. Digital Books; Marketing and Promotion. You agree that we may market and promote your Digital Books by making chapters or portions of your Titles available to prospective customers without charge, and permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of the Digital Book in response to search queries. Amazon will not owe you any fees for the marketing and promotional efforts described above. The Program may include features that allow users to print one or more pages of your Titles.The short version of that is: Amazon can distribute content from the book and allow users to print it, without charging for it and without paying you for it.
The 'permission to print' seems to go beyond the deal Amazon's already struck for 'Search inside this book' for promoting printed books on its website. It's essential for authors to give away some preview content to demonstrate the value of their books. Indeed, similar terms are usually a part of a conventional publishing contract. But Amazon's a shop, not a publisher. Authors and publishers should decide what material is promotional, and what material is only available for sale. Amazon wants the right to give away whatever content it wants, albeit with the implied motive that it will try to pick content that will help the book sell.
For reference works, the value could be significantly eroded if Amazon allows excerpts to be printed without any payment. We can only hope that Amazon is working on a way of administering micropayments so that people can buy book excerpts and authors can be rewarded appropriately.
Also, Amazon will keep 65% of the retail price. By comparison, Lulu charges a fee of 25% of what you get (which is then added to the sale price, so it's actually less than 25% of the ebook price). If you're a self-publisher, 35% is probably not too bad a return given that there's no work to do with moving printed books and there's no cost to incur in creating them, but it's far from competitive. It also seems to overstate the costs incurred in operating the infrastructure and underestimate the costs involved in creating content.
10. Technology. You acknowledge that we will be entitled to utilize DRM technology in connection with the distribution of Digital Books but are not obligated to do so. Accordingly, there may be no technology or other limitation imposed by us on copying or transfer of any Digital Book we distribute.Personally, I don't approve of digital rights management technology. But when publishers are selling ebooks, they'll want to know what rights they're licensing and what controls will be used to enforce them and this term seems somewhat vague. There 'might or might not be DRM' isn't really a good basis for making a decision about whether you want to sell through Amazon, particularly if piracy or consumer rights is something you feel strongly about.
The use of the words 'irrevocable licence' set off alarm bells, but it seems this is about protecting consumers and ensuring that they will be able to download content they've bought easily in future. The irrevocable licence does not extend to making the ebook available for sale (so you can withdraw it later).
If anyone's actually self-publishing through Amazon Kindle, I'd be interested in hearing about your results in the comments.
08 April 2008
This vocabulary quiz will test the most avid readers or writers to their limits. It starts easy, but it soon gets tough.
It looks like you have to answer three vocabulary questions correctly in a row to go up a level, and if you get one wrong, you drop down again. The answers are too short to properly teach you new words, but you can always look up any intriguing words you don't know. An integrated dictionary link would be a nice addition.
The twist with this is that for every round you play, you generate a donation of 20 grains of rice. The site is operated as a non-profit and the money that advertisers pay to show their ads with each quiz round is used to donate free rice to the United Nations World Food Programme.
It's an interesting extension of the Hunger Site's principle, where instead of just clicking each day, you can play a game and spend more time there to increase your donation. And from a business point of view, it's probably more robust because the intelligence required to consistently answer questions should help screen out fraudulent clicks. I wonder whether the adverts are targeted according to how smart you appear to be..?
29 March 2008
I'm a keen reader of and subscriber to Private Eye. Given that my novel 'University of Death' has a subplot involving politics and uses a lot of humour in telling its story about the music business, the Eye's 798,000 readers could be an ideal advertising target. Adverts start at £26 for 10 words, which is within the reach of self-publishers.
And indeed, many self-publishers do promote their works there. But I had my suspicions the ads don't work. There's relatively high turnover of advertisers in the Eye Read section compared to some other sections (eg speechwriting), which suggests advertisers aren't seeing results. Additionally, the margin on book sales is such that I'd need to sell more than 13 copies directly attributable to Private Eye to break even. You only need to sell one speech per advert to make your money back, maybe even less if you're booking a series of ads.
I did a spot of market research and emailed five authors who have recently promoted their books in Private Eye and who had a website address. Four were kind enough to reply in some detail, and there was a clear consensus.
Lazz Hewings is a cartoonist researching a book about British Pub culture. He advertised to ask for responses to his questionnaire. He told me:
I was very disappointed with the response, considering the publication has a circulation of close to a million - I had 4 replies! Yes that's right - four! This, I thought, was interesting in its own right.Chris Snowden has written a book documenting the war against smoking and liberty. He said:
I actually got very little response from that advert although I have used Private Eye for business ads before and found them to be quite good. What the response would be for your novel I really couldn't say.Kevin Duffy, author of the novel 'Anthills and Stars' and small press manager, placed a couple of adverts for different books in the same issue. He said:
To be honest, for £120 the response wasn't that great, but that could be my ad, they went to the website and thought what was on offer was a pile of shite...however, glad I did it, I have had some great responses, e mail converstaions etc, but if you're thinking was it cost effective the answer is no it wasn't.Ian Poole used Private Eye to promote his 'radical interpretation of the events in Jesus's life'. He told me:
In answer to your query about the efficacy of Private Eye adverts, I can report that, sadly, it was a waste of £52. As far as I can make out not a single copy sold because of it. Obviously they tend to circulate for a while so it may produce a few, but it certainly has not been a success. Worth a try I suppose. The book has rather narrow appeal, so I think that it may have been the wrong place.I was particularly interested to see that Chris Snowden had found the business ads effective and Kevin Duffy's statement that it had generated some interesting correspondence. That suggests people do read the adverts, so for the right kind of book and right ad copy, there might be an opportunity there to pick up sales. But the experience of recent advertisers should be taken as a warning to authors and publishers that 798,000 circulated adverts does not necessarily translate into even a handful of sales.
19 February 2008
Remember Shaggy Blog Stories, the compendium of humorous blog posts created in aid of Comic Relief? The book went on to raise over £2200 for charity, and continues to sell.
Now it's inspired a new collection entitled 'You are not the only one', and dedicated to raising money for War Child. There's a call for submissions online now, and you've got two weeks to dig out your best stuff from your blog archive. Keep it short, and you'll stand more chance of getting in, they say.
Here's the run-down:
We would like you to submit (to us at email@example.com) a written piece about something you've been through from any aspect of your life that you want to share. It can literally be about anything: your relationships, your past, a road not taken, being a parent, an illness or your regrets etc. We've called it "You're Not The Only One" to reflect the camaraderie of blogging.See the more detailed guidelines here. If you don't have a blog, keep an eye on the site for news of when it goes on sale. It's bound to be special.
I have submitted my Tribute to Syd Barrett for consideration. I'm not the kind of blogger that shares their private life extensively, but I do know it meant something to me to be able to write that story while listening to Piper on the day I heard Syd had died.
06 December 2007
I've written 17 tips on novel writing. There are many more experienced people offering advice on how to paint a scene or structure a plot, so I've just focused on the logistics. In all the guides to novel writing I've seen, there's relatively little attention paid to organising ideas and time, which are key challenges for most writers.
01 December 2007
I'm delighted to say that my satire of the music industry 'University of Death' is available now, exclusively from Lulu. You can preview the first two chapters now.
When you order it, your copy is printed and bound and sent to you in a sturdy cardboard box. The book is 380 pages, and 6x9 inches (which is a bit like a hardback without the hard cover). The book costs £9.99 plus shipping, which varies depending on where in the world you are.
In my last quality check, I still found things I would have liked to have done slightly differently, but the book is definitely ready for the world now and any more editing would be tinkering and procrastination (which as we know is fear in slow motion).
After working on this for about two years, it does feel odd to be sharing it with the world now. Karen was the first person to read it when I'd finished it, and when we discussed it, it felt strange to hear her talking about people like Dove and Bigg, who for such a long time had lived in my imagination alone. I'd never heard their names spoken out loud before. I am excited that new readers will be meeting them for the first time soon and discovering their story.
This is kind of a soft launch to blog readers. I am planning to put together a corner of this website about the book, which will include an author interview. If you've got any questions you'd like to pose about the book or how it came together, feel free to email them over or put them in the comments here. In exchange, I'll try not to be too much of a luvvie in the answers. I'll also be putting together a few special features and a book preview in PDF that's easier to print.
Phew. Now I'm off to relax with a Chinese take-away and a silly film with lots of explosions in. Perhaps later I'll have a celebratory game of Beach Head.
PS: The book makes an ideal Christmas gift (hint, hint - but not for me, I've got plenty). Lulu took nine days to deliver my latest copies this week, which is slower than its usual target of printing in 4 days, but you should still be able to get copies in time for Chrimbo. According to Lulu's Xmas shipping dates you have a week to order in the UK (longer if you pay for express shipping or are in the US). Consult the list for shipping dates for other countries.
22 June 2007
So in my BBC RSS feed this morning, sat between 'Stagecoach wins railway franchise' and 'Bomb strikes UK patrol in Basra', is the headline 'Shot kitten's leg was amputated'. The subheading reads: 'A kitten is recovering after its leg was amputated after being shot with a pellet gun in County Antrim.'
This heart-rending story is so important, it is also in the third place on the Northern Ireland news homepage at the time of writing, with a photo.
It is a distressing story, but what's going to keep me awake at night is that the reporter didn't find out the name of the cat.
10 April 2007
When I have time, I'll write a list of my favourite writing books and Roy Peter Clarke's Writing Tools will crown it. There are plenty of books for new writers, but this one helps writers with experience to develop their style. Some of the ideas are simple, but take on new life in this book thanks to the inspiring examples from journalism and fiction. Not all the writing is to my taste, but it's nearly all impressive.
Today, I discovered 'Writing Tools: The musical', based loosely on Baz Luhrmann's Sunscreen single of 1999 (download details on right of linked page, warning: lyrics spoilers in the main content).
It goes a bit wacky at the end and some clever ideas are skipped over in the interests of brevity. But as an aide-memoire for a much-loved book, and an example of how you can make a writing tutorial fun, I love it. It made me laugh a couple of times too, although that might be because I know both the book and the single it parodies. If you have any interest in writing, you owe it to yourself to gamble six minutes on it today.
21 March 2007
Good writers are masters of brevity. They spot the dead wood and eliminate it. They make sure every word in every sentence is adding meaning.
But how short can a story be before it stops being a story? Hemingway wrote a six word tale that is poignant and has a beginning, middle and an end: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Wired has challenged today's writers to tell a story in six words. Some turned out to be little more than punchlines. Others seem like the start or end of a story, but not the whole thing. It's a difficult brief, and all the attempts are worth reading.
My favourites are 'Machine. Unexpectedly, I'd invented a time' by Alan Moore and 'From torched skyscrapers, men grew wings.' by Gregory Maguire. I also enjoyed 'The baby's blood type? Human, mostly.' by Orson Scott Card.
Read the Wired article for about 90 more.
Although I've technically reproduced three of Wired's stories in full above, I'm not expecting them to have a problem with this. I think those excerpts are fair use in the context of promoting the full article.
Also, it would be rather hypocritical for Wired to get upset given that earlier this month the site published three pages of Fox Interactive Media's trade secrets verbatim. In a story about Fox preparing a news portal for MySpace, Wired included two leaked screenshots and six slides from a presentation. Since these would be copyright of Fox and this story had no public interest defence, this seems an odd stance for a publishing business to take.
11 February 2007
This site celebrates its tenth birthday round about now and to mark the occasion I've given it a spring clean. Some content has been removed, but nothing you're likely to miss (do tell me if I'm wrong - perhaps I'll bring it back again). I've improved the design, particularly the navigation. It should be easier to explore and find what you're looking for now.
I've also added lots of new/old stuff from my archives.
I wrote, I think, the first big story in a UK web design magazine about accessibility, published in Internet Magazine in 2000. Today any decent website designer is aware of accessibility, but back then few people were interested. The editor at another magazine turned down a pitch on the subject, saying it was a minority issue of no interest to businesses.
Over the years, awareness of accessibility has increased. But I know many people still struggle to understand why they should and how they can create a more inclusive website. And I know a lot of designers can't be arsed, and their clients, who are ultimately responsible for the accessibility of the sites they buy, let them get away with it.
I've now added some of my later articles explaining accessibility to my webmaster tutorials. I hope that they will inspire more people to consider users with disabilities in their website designs, and will provide some helpful guidance on eliminating the biggest barriers.
The accessibility stories (new and old) are:
- Jakob Nielsen on why accessibility matters
- 17 Steps to an accessible website
- Access? That'll do nicely
- Making Flash accessible
- Accessibility Excellence - case studies of three accessible websites
- Tesco launches visionary website
In the journalism resources section, there's a new article about writing for the web.
The quality of the scans of rock and pop photos has been dramatically improved, and this is now reflected where they are used in the music articles too. My list of places where you can promote your music has also been refreshed.
Finally, there's a new gallery of photos of Sydney, Australia. One of my pictures of the Opera House was part of an architecture exhibition in Paris last year. There's a much cleaner scan of that too.
If you want to see what the first version of this site looked like, there's a screenshot of this site from 1997 here. It would have looked right at home on geocities.
Here's to the next ten years. Cheers!
13 October 2006
Following my talk for the Society of Authors in February, I've written an article for the society's magazine 'The Author' (Autumn 2006 issue). It's a beginner's guide to setting up a website, aimed at authors. It includes links to helpful resources and some guidelines on the cost of operating a website. The emphasis is on simple, cheap and practical tools. You can read it at the JournalismCareers.com website now.
For a limited time, readers of this blog can benefit from an exclusive discount of 25% off my ebook 'Journalism Careers - Your questions answered'. The ebook answers 64 top questions I've been asked about working as a journalist by visitors to my websites. Spread over 108 pages, it includes plenty of practical advice for those starting out or looking to switch careers. It's designed for comfortable reading on screen but can also be printed. Bonus material includes time planning sheets, a commission checklist, and a 19-point article quality checklist. The ebook usually costs £8.95 or US$15.95 before the discount (sales tax may apply).
To benefit from the discount, enter the code SEAN-2F1Q when prompted. The coupon expires on 12 November 2006. This is the only price discount that has ever been offered on this ebook and it is not available through other websites.
25 May 2006
A student who wrote a short story including scant details of a fictional murder is being pestered by US police to provide DNA so that they can eliminate him from their real-world murder enquiries, according to Boingboing.
The story entitled 'I am Ready to Serve My Country' by Philip Sandifer is written as an application to join the defence forces and is under 250 words. In the story, the letter's author boasts that he's killed before, hinting that he believes this makes him suitable for the armed forces. It's a subtle joke, obviously lost on the University of Florida police. A university spokesman said that murder's a touchy subject because five students were killed off-campus ten years ago.
All societies censor their culture to a greater or lesser extent, but this witty story is extremely mild compared to what you'll see if you switch on TV any evening, or watch a blockbuster at the cinema. It is encouraging to see that the student has the full support of his advisor, Professor Dobrin, but disturbing to see the police trying to intimidate people out of expressing their views and creativity. This is nothing more than an abuse of power to limit free speech.
25 March 2006
I'm going to stick my head over the parapet now and write something unpopular: Copyright matters.
I know it's trendy nowadays to be all loved-up and say 'hey, man, let the data flow free like a river'. I have great respect for the work of the open source movement, and for the work of the Creative Commons. But just because some people choose to relinquish some of their legal rights, it doesn't mean everybody else should be forced to.
As you might know, I'm pretty defensive of my copyrights. In this post I'll explain some of the reasons why.
Creators should choose how stuff is usedOne of the issues that is often overlooked is one of choice. Even a Creative Commons licence gives you a choice over which rights you give away. You can, for example, say content is free to use provided it's not modified or that it can be used only in non-commercial projects.
But a problem with the Creative Commons model is that it assumes you want to assign permission based on usage, and not on who is making that use. I'm pretty politically aware, and there are some organisations that I would never grant permission to use my creative work. I would never want my work to be used against the causes I believe in. There are even individuals with whose views I disagree to the extent that I wouldn't want to actively help them. The law gives me the right to choose on a case-by-case basis who can and can't use my work.
This has nothing to do with free speech, by the way: Just because I respect and defend your right to express your views, it doesn't mean I should help you express them.
Time mattersAnyone want to mow my lawn for free? Go on. I'll tell everyone you did a great job. I thought not.
Time is the scarcest resource we have. Some of us will have more than others (we won't know how much until the end), but we've all got the same number of hours in the day, and days in the week. Working out how to spend it is what life's all about. Respecting how people spend their time is respecting their lives.
Over the last (nearly) ten years, I have spent a lot of time making content and building this website. Content is quick to consume, but slow to create. Writing games takes days. Writing an article can take half a day, once research is factored in. Even taking and scanning photographs is a fairly big job, even before we've factored in the time taken travelling to places to photograph. And let's not even start talking about how long it takes to write a book.
Don't get me wrong - I love it. That's why I do it. But if I've spent my limited life force making things instead of watching TV, it seems only fair that I choose who benefits from that. The law gives me the right to exercise control over how my work is used.
Derivative works are just thatA derivative work is when you take one thing, and then build upon it to make another thing. It's a more creative endeavour than just copying something, and the people who create the derivative work often add value. But they often cause problems too, and I have a right in law to decide who can and can't make derivative works from my material.
There are corners of the internet where people are still cursing me in a foreign language following a dispute over an unauthorised translation of one of my articles. I know that the translator who broke copyright law was only trying to make some ideas more widely available, but the end result could be the exact opposite. Now that I've had the exclusive translation rights stolen from me for that language, I can't license a major publisher to use it (which would have potentially communicated the ideas much more widely). For the record, I tried to reach a compromise where I published the translated version on this website but the translator was unresponsive. The article has been pulled from circulation.
Derivative works also restrict my creative freedom. If I make something, I'm free to adapt and modify it how I like. If somebody else independently alters it and makes new works, I'm having some of my creative options taken from me. Either I can't then do what they've done, or there is another work out there with which I must compete despite creating the original source material.
I do respect the time that people spend in creating derivative works, but request that they also respect the time that I spend in creating source material. If you're interested in translating content or creating derivative works, please contact me. I'll work with you if I can, but reserve my legal right to say 'no'.
Let's talk businessJust because you're not prepared to pay for something, it doesn't mean it doesn't have a value. While many people can and do set up websites for free, I actually write cheques to keep this website online. I also incur real money costs creating content (software, hardware, training). I've put over 300 pages of original content online and nearly all of it is free for you to read.
This is made possible by advertising, and the products I sell, including licences to use my copyright material. By charging people who want to make certain uses of my content, I'm able to publish lots more content for free. If I let people put my work on other websites for free, I end up competing with my own work for the traffic that helps pay the bills. That's the economics of it.
You might think I could avoid all that by just giving the content away, so that other people pay to host it. I can see how this might work for certain types of content. I've allowed unmodified copies of my websafe colour palette program to be circulated freely. But we come back to the control issue again (see above), so I don't allow my other work to be copied in this way.
In certain cases, I will grant a free licence to use my work. In other cases, I will make a charge. You might be surprised at how friendly I am, if you drop me a line.
Copyrights do have a commercial value and they are a part of my wealth. Anyone taking my copyright material is stealing some of my livelihood.
Credit where it's dueIt's a buzz when someone says they like what you've made, or that they found it useful in accomplishing their own goals. Knowing the identity of the creator of a work also changes your perception of it. The law gives me a right to be identified as the creator of my creative works.
There are a couple of common web practices which interfere with this right:
- Linking directly to images on another server. This is particularly bad because it means someone else is paying the hosting bill for images to appear on your website. At the same time, it looks like you own the content or at least like it appears there with the consent of the creator. It's not smart from the point of view of managing your own site, either. The image host can change the image that appears on your site to something unsavoury. Explain that to Mum.
- Framing content. There's a lot less of this goes on nowadays, but in the old days people used to frame other webpages, which could create the impression they were part of the same website.
I really appreciate people linking to this website to help spread the word, but please link to a HTML page and don't use frames. Don't make it look like you own my content. Ask if you don't understand or you're not sure.
Fair useI'm not trying to restrict your rights here - just assert my own. So I don't have a problem with people reproducing short excerpts for the purpose of comment provided they're accompanied by a link to the original source. I don't have a problem with people using images from this site as their windows wallpaper on their own computer, although I do have a problem with them passing those images on to others. You're welcome to print out any material here for your own use, but not to circulate it without permission. If you're not sure what's allowed, please drop me a line.
DiscussionIf you've got any comments, please email me. I'll update this article with them later.
For the avoidance of any doubt, none of the above and nothing in the comments grants you any rights in relation to my content. If you want to make use of my copyright material, you are required to contact me first.
There are lots of 'contact me' links in the above, because I get particularly annoyed when people don't ask. I'll negotiate if you ask. I won't, if you don't.