The Rainbow Orchid volume 3 out tomorrow

Tomorrow, the final part of The Rainbow Orchid, “the biggest adventure in comics”, comes out, and I can’t wait. Nor can others, apparently:

The Alice at R’lyeh Report, part 2

(Part 1 of this report, about creating the Alice at R’lyeh booklet, can be read here.)

Now I’d spent actual money getting the Alice at R’lyeh booklet printed, I had to promote and sell it. Not my favourite thing. Some artists & writers are happy to shout about what they’ve done, and frankly, I envy them. Self-promotion is a talent that is, I can’t help thinking, as valuable as being able to produce promotion-worthy content in the first place. I’m sure there’s a part of every writer/artist that wants to crow about what they’ve done, but for some (me included) tapping into it can be difficult. I tend to feel, whenever I produce something I like, that what makes it likeable to me is some rare, personal quality, that, if I’m lucky, might be shared by at most a scattering of oddballs and misfits classifiable by no known marketing category. So I’m the last person to want to convince anyone to buy something I’ve produced. But, if you’re self-publishing, that’s what you’ve got to do.

I have to admit I never exactly shouted at the top of my voice that Alice at R’lyeh was available to buy. But here’s a summary of what I did do.

Website. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in these endlessly new-fashioning times, but you’ve got to have a website. I stopped short of buying a domain name for the project, mostly for reasons of expense, but also because I think, increasingly, unique and meaningful domain names are only of use if you’re promoting something through non-internet media. If you’re being interviewed on the radio, for instance, I guess you have to be able to provide an easily memorable way of accessing more information about your project. But even then, with a sufficiently unique name (or some memorable tags), a Google search is just as good. Search for “Alice at R’lyeh” on Google, and you get my site — so, job done, there.

The major website-related decision I took was to put the text of the poem online, and to provide a freely downloadable PDF of the booklet (with graphics at web-level dpi, both for size reasons, and to encourage people to buy the booklet if they wanted a printed version). Why do this? I could have just put up a teaser so people had to buy the booklet for the whole thing. I’d like to say I was influenced by Cory Doctorow‘s ideas on giving away what he writes as both a free ebook and a paid-for printed book — as I was to a certain extent — but the decision really came down to the fact that I didn’t want anyone being disappointed with the booklet when they finally got it. I have no idea if not having the whole thing readable on the website would have led to more sales, but my main aim, in the end, wasn’t sales, it was just to have what I’d written read by people. To that end, the website was the primary tool.

Of course, what I really wanted to know was that people were reading the thing — either by spending time on the poem’s page, or downloading the PDF. I’d already set up Google Analytics to provide me with stats on my whole website, but now wish I’d put something a bit more basic and specific in place. For two reasons. (1) Google Analytics offers so much data, and so many options, that I can’t find a simple access count for either of the key pages. (2) I tried setting up a filter to provide me with data specific to the Alice at R’lyeh section of my website, but for some reason it resulted in a filter that displayed data relevant to everything but the Alice at R’lyeh section of my site. Plus, there’s an old bit of my site (Getting More Out of GarageBand, about Apple’s GarageBand, and not updated since 2005!) which annoyingly gets so many more hits than any other part, however new. So, I’ve no idea how many people have read Alice at R’lyeh online or downloaded the PDF.

Reviews. There are two sorts of reviews. Those you solicit, and those that pop up spontaneously. I solicited one review for Alice at R’lyeh (at Grim Reviews). But discovering the odd spontaneous review that people put up — however brief — was a real joy. I’m still quite nervous of following links to any mention of Alice at R’lyeh, but am so glad when I do and someone has something nice to say. This one from Homo Sum, for instance — brief, but above all, it’s obvious the guy gets it. And knowing you’ve been “got” is, really, the best reward self-publishing can lead to.

Conventions & shows. I didn’t go to any conventions and shows myself, but thanks to the extremely lucky coincidence that I have a brother with a newly (and professionally) published book out, who very generously offered to put a bouquet of Alice at R’lyehs among the Rainbow Orchids on his table, I learned about the power of selling at conventions and shows. They are obviously the route to go. I don’t know if it’s just because people can see the product, or because the sort of people who go to conventions have curious minds and quirkily individualistic tastes, but Garen got through virtually all the copies I gave him, at a much faster rate than my internet sales.

The odd thing, to me, was that those shows were comics shows. I felt at first I ought to put a sticker on the booklets — “Warning: Poem! Not a Comic!” — but it didn’t seem to matter. Garen told me people were quite okay with it being a poem. And this is one thing I came to learn as part of the self-publishing experience, that different subcultures have very different attitudes to self-publishing. In the UK comics scene, there is a thriving self-publishing community, which sees the fact that something is self-published as a genuine plus-point. It actively welcomes the diversity of the sort of things people produce when they’re let loose on their own. Other areas, though, see self-publishing as an active minus-point, if not an outright automatic rejection. Searching for places to send a review copy of Alice at R’lyeh to, I often came across “no self-published work” notices, which started to annoy me as much as the “no fantasy, science fiction or children’s fiction” notices you find in The Writers & Artist’s Yearbook list of literary agents.

It’s sort of understandable, I suppose, given the context. A self-published comic is a very different thing from a self-published novel. A comic, for instance, has to be drawn, so takes a bit more effort and ability to produce. Also, as you, the punter, can take in the drawing at a glance, you can know instantly if it’s likely to be your sort of thing. (It doesn’t lead to an instant judgment on the story, of course. But if you don’t like the story, you’ve still got the artwork.) A self-published novel is more difficult to judge, and because it takes less skill to write a bad novel than to produce a bad comic, it’s statistically more likely that a self-published novel won’t be as good as a self-published comic. Still, I think there have always been various areas of culture more open to people doing their own thing. When I used to listen to Jazz FM (not being into jazz much, but my stepfather was), I was struck by how all jazz musicians accepted and complimented what each other did, however at odds it was to their own approach. It was a world in which everything was valid. Compare that with pop music, say, where you often get people dissing each other left, right, and centre. (I can’t believe I actually wrote “dissing”, but now I’ve written it, I can’t find a substitute. It may sound like I’m pathetically and outdatedly trying to be hip, but the word stays!) Anyway, there’s room for a whole blog post on that topic. Suffice it to say, I’m extremely grateful for the reception Alice at R’lyeh got from the UK comics community, considering it’s not a comic at all, but a poem.

Google AdWords. Google kept sending me these promotional offers to use £75 worth of free AdWords advertising. If you haven’t come across this, AdWords ads are those brief text ads that appear on the righthand side of Google searches, and also pop up in other places, like eBay. I thought, “Why not use it for Alice? It’s free!” So, keeping a careful eye on the amount I was spending (you can’t automatically cap the expense with AdWords, and in the end I actually went £5 over my free £75 because I realised I was looking at the wrong page on the AdWords control panel), I engaged in a fortnight’s Google AdWords campaign. It’s difficult to judge how effective this was, as I was also, at the time, listing on eBay. But I’d say, if it hadn’t been free, AdWords would certainly not have justified its cost for a small, self-published project like mine. Plus, I got annoyed every time I saw my own ad on eBay or Google — it was costing me!

eBay. After the conventions, eBay was my big seller. I’ve had more sales via eBay than via my website. The main factor here, of course, is that Alice at R’lyeh is a Lovecraftian project, and I suspect a lot of the sales were to people who look out for and collect Lovecraftiana. “Lovecraft” is one of my few regular eBay searches, so I just hoped there would be other people who did the same. Turns out I was right. Of course, the unfortunate thing here is that this doesn’t generalise to other projects. People bought Alice at R’lyeh because of its Lovecraft associations. They certainly didn’t, for instance, search eBay using my name (I didn’t even bother to put it in the headline description). So, I’m not sure how useful eBay would be for a more original project.

Those, then, were my approaches to promoting and selling Alice at R’lyeh. The main lesson, I think, is that each project will have individual quirks (in this case, the Lovecraft connection, and the illustrations giving it something of a comics overlap) which will help sell it, so each project has to be considered on its own merits. One thing you’ll notice missing from the above is any mention of Facebook or Twitter — I’m still getting to grips with social networking, so, obviously, those are pretty much untapped resources, for me.

The main thing about self-publishing is something that should be true about creativity in general. It should be fun. It isn’t always, and you can easily forget to enjoy it, but I think if you keep reminding yourself that it should be enjoyable, and use that as a guide to what to do next, then at least you know, at the end of it, that you made a profit in that sense, even if you didn’t financially.

(And I certainly didn’t make a profit financially. First off, I forgot to factor in PayPal and eBay fees, which wiped out the small margin I’d allowed for in my costings. Then the price of postage went up. Oh, and I indulged in a few “promotional items”, just for the hell of it, such as these mini-cards from Moo.com:

…And a t-shirt from yourdesign.co.uk, which didn’t really work. So I did an Edgar Allan Poe baseball shirt as well:

…which did!)

I’ll finish off by mentioning the two best moments of the whole project. One was each time I got an order from a new country. I ended up selling, as well as to the UK, to the USA, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Japan! (A real surprise, that last one.) I don’t know why, but there’s something inherently satisfying about putting those little mental flags around the globe. (I didn’t actually put Alice at R’lyeh flags on my World Domination Globe. Honestly I didn’t.)

The other great moment was when MorganScorpion contacted me, out of the blue, and offered to record a reading of the poem. Apart from the thrill of hearing the poem read so well, it was the fact that this was, as it were, an artistic/creative response to what I’d done, and it certainly capped the whole experience. (If you haven’t heard the reading, you can do so via the Alice at R’lyeh site, or to Archive.org, which also has other readings by MorganScorpion.)

Anyway, that’s the report. Thanks to everyone who’s bought or read the booklet, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed the process of getting it out there.

(If anyone has written similar reports about self-published projects, please put links in the comments section, as I’d love to read them.)

The Rainbow Orchid book launch

Went up to London yesterday to the Rainbow Orchid book launch, held at the Gallery in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, put on by the nice people at Egmont. It soon became quite a crowded event:

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You might just be able to spot Garen in that picture. It’s one of the few I took of him where he wasn’t blinking!

Not having been to a book launch before, I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a moment where someone cut a ribbon, smashed a bottle of champagne, opened the curtains on a little plaque, or whatever, but finally it came. Here’s a (rather grainy I’m afraid) pic of Garen just having been paid a massive (but deserved) compliment by Tim Jones of Egmont, and looking characteristically modest:

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Finally, there were signings, and the giving away of posters, T-shirts and badges:

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It’s thrilling to have the book in print and on sale. There’s been quite a buzz about the Rainbow Orchid for some time, and that’s only going to increase now it’s widely available. Keep up with Garen’s blog for more news — and, of course, buy a copy if you haven’t already!

Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth

Surely the “Dungeons” part of Dungeons & Dragons owes a substantial debt to the fevered mind of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who stands as a sort of dark fountainhead of one obscure aspect of fantasy art — the multi-levelled subterranean labyrinth.

Born in 1720, Piranesi wanted nothing more than to be an architect, but despite publishing several books on the theory of architecture and architectural renovation (a hot topic in crumbling late-Renaissance Rome), during his lifetime he only received one actual commission that was actually put into effect — and that was a renovation, not a new building. Piranesi made his living in various ways, one of which was producing etchings. His most popular was a series of views of Rome to sell to tourists, but he also indulged in a set of “architectural fantasies” published under the title Carceri D’Invenzione — or, the Invented Prisons.

What a febrile, tortured imagination Piranesi had! This, looking like the nightmare child of Gary Gygax and M C Escher, is one of his more labyrinthine efforts, a three-dimensional maze of stairways and walkways, complete with gibbet-like struts, barred windows and darkly suggestive ropes. The figures, if you can spot them, are dwarfed by their surroundings:

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I’ve been collecting examples of the Piranesian influence as I find it popping up, so here are a few. The first is from one of my favourite films (and novels), The Name of the Rose (1986). Not a prison this time, but a monastery library, though this fact hardly makes it any less oppressive (here, forbidden books are imprisoned):

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And this, from Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film (2004) — del Toro’s obsession with clockwork replacing Piranesi’s spiked wheels and shadowy torture devices:

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Hayao Miyazaki provides this example, from the villain’s castle in Tales From Earthsea (2006), complete with Piranesian winch:

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The latest addition to my collection is this panel from Starblazer #190, “The Power of the Warlocks” (1987), drawn by Ian Kennedy (not credited in the comic, but artist info courtesy of the Starblazer Issue Guide). More oppressive religious architecture, this time with appropriate minotaur figures as pillars (and is the one on the lower left flipping the bird?):

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But my love of the dark, subterranean, multi-levelled maze began way before I came across Piranesi. It probably started around the time I came across this picture, in The Best of White Dwarf Articles III, drawn by (I think) Bob McWilliams (…or has it always been there, in dreams?):

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What would the world have been like had a Piranesi design actually been realised in stone? And what sort of demon patron would commission such a nightmare anyway? For the answer to that, see this story of mine, elsewhere on this site