The Fantasy Reader

My novel, The Fantasy Reader, is out today!

TFR_fan

At the end of last year, I said I’d be bringing it out as an ebook, but I really wanted a copy sitting on my shelf, so I started looking into getting a print version out, too. This blog post by Karen Inglis was enormously helpful, and pretty much determined how I went about it. (Short version: using Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing for the Amazon print and Kindle versions, and IngramSpark for everywhere else.) The whole thing took a lot longer than I’d expected (not helped by my decision to paint the cover myself, something everyone says authors shouldn’t do) — the above picture is actually the set of proof copies I accumulated on the road to getting the finished product.

You can read about the book (and read an extract) at The Fantasy Reader mini-site.

40th Birthday Giveaway!

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’m doing a bit of a giveaway. I’m producing 40 booklets of a Poe-esque gothic mellodrama poem I wrote sometime last year, called My Vampire Bride.

Yes, I know vampires have been over-popular of late, but when the undead pay you a visit, you can’t ignore them! My Vampire Bride isn’t a vampire of the Twilight sort, nor even of the reconstructed Anne Rice variety, but goes back to something far more Hammer Horror-ish, all wispy flowing nighties and misty nighttime graveyards. But enough excuses. Nosferatu don’t make no steenkin’ excuses!

The booklet is A6, with card covers and eight internal pages. You can request a free copy, sent anywhere in the world by bat-wing courier, by filling out this form. As I say, I’m only making 40 available; once all 40 have been requested, the form will disappear like a vampire at sunrise!

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 Alice at R’lyeh Report, part 1

I always intended to do a write up on the experience of self-publishing Alice at R’lyeh, and as it’s down to its last baker’s dozen or so copies (and as I haven’t blogged for a while), now’s the time. (And if you want to buy a copy, get one while you still can!)

Previously, my only self-publishing experience was with Baleful Head, a zine I brought out in 1997 (with a lot of helpful advice, encouragement and Quark expertise, not to mention articles & artwork, from Garen). It lasted a single issue, then slouched onto the web before breathing its last. Nowadays, its subject — long, critical reviews of fantasy books, films, etc. — is much more suited to a blog. (Which I’d start if I had the time! You can read some of my Baleful Head articles in the misc section of this website.) Alice at R’lyeh, however, was quite a different kind of project, and this time I ended up doing the whole process — including illustrations, design & layout, and getting it printed — myself, which meant a whole batch of firsts for me.

The first first was deciding to publish it — a poem, no less — at all. That sort of crept up on me, as did the writing of the thing. Five minutes before I started Alice at R’lyeh, I had no intention of penning a 35-stanza mini-nonsense-epic about Lewis Carroll’s Alice (or, really, my version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, because mine is slightly older, and slightly less Victorian) ending up in H P Lovecraft’s R’lyeh. It’s only because I happened to be near my computer with nothing to do when the first two lines popped into my head that I wrote it at all. Even then, I just thought, “This might be fun. I might get ten lines out of this.” Little did I know that my available writing time for the next ten days would be spent furiously trying to bend four-line aabb-rhymed nonsense stanzas to my increasingly tested will, while piling my desk with propped-open copies of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and Others, S T Joshi’s Lovecraft: A Life, and Alice W Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease (which alerted me to Lewis Carroll’s inveterate letter-writing, the first tenuous link between Carroll and Lovecraft I came up with), among other books. (Not to mention a good deal of web-searching. Who would have thought “vigintillion” has a different magnitude to English and American mathematicians? And which would the American Anglophile Lovecraft have meant when he used it to describe Cthulhu’s age?)

The illustrations weren’t planned either. It was only because I thought, “I wonder what my version of Alice would look like”, and tried out a few sketches, and actually came up with something I liked, that I went any further in that direction. (Also when I realised the key to drawing Lovecraft, which had up to then eluded me, is just how stern he looks in his more famous photographs. So much so that when you actually see a photo of him smiling, it sort of takes you aback.) Once I’d come up with an Alice and a Lovecraft, I realised there was nothing for it but to try a few illustrations for my poem. And perhaps a cover. And, once I’d done a cover, there was no excuse for it. The thought that had been niggling around in the back of my mind just had to come out and niggle in the forefront, too: I might as well try and publish the damn thing.

So, I completed the illustrations and coloured them. (Giving up on the idea of trying to represent the “wrong angles” of R’lyeh with a bit of Escher-like visual trickery. I always get ideas much bigger than my abilities.) This was the first time I’d ever worked seriously at drawing, with the aim of producing a real, proper, final product, and so the first time I’ve ever done version after version till I got it right. Once I’d coloured them (in Photoshop — the illos were done using pencil, brush-pen and tracing paper, but coloured entirely on computer), I produced some postcard-sized versions and had them printed out via Moo.com, to get an idea of what they’d look like. (Plus, I have to admit, as a little treat for having finished them.)

My first unnecessary expense! One of many!

Then came the bit I knew I’d have real difficulty with — producing a print-ready PDF. This was something OS X’s print-to-PDF function was going to be wildly inadequate for. What I needed was a program which would give me control over the dpi of images, and the embedding of fonts and so on. (This is about as far as my knowledge of PDF preparations goes — I know enough to know how little I know.) What I needed was a small-scale DTP program, or so I thought. It was only when I started searching the web for a likely candidate that I realised small-scale DTP programs are pretty much a dying breed. Nowadays, it seems, you’ve got either a bunch of very easy-to-use, consumer-oriented lightweights, like Apple’s Pages (or some even worse shareware ones I won’t name), which don’t give you anything like the sort of control you need to produce a print-ready PDF, or you have to stump up for Adobe Acrobat, which in current money is, as Tony Hancock would say, very nearly an armful. An added difficulty was that, looking at printer’s websites, a lot of them were very fussy about what sort of PDFs they’d take — some insisted on only having PDFs generated by Acrobat, or they wouldn’t take responsibility for the results. Others insisted on charging a look-over fee to check your PDF, simply to reject it if it wasn’t right. I didn’t mind paying a bit extra for some guidance, but I was beginning to feel this was one of those situations where the step from amateur to professional was about a mile high, and likely to end in expense and embarrassment for a stumbling dilettante like myself.

But finally, after much searching, I found what I needed: Scribus. Open-source, pro-level PDF preparation (or pro-enough for me), and what was more, exactly in my price range. It was free! It doesn’t have a Mac-consistent interface, but I knew I could put up with its peculiarities considering the price. The best thing was, it meant I’d be able to use what fonts I wanted (I wanted the interior typography to look good, not just the title on the cover), and I’d be able to insert my illustrations without worrying that they’d come out all jpegged when it was finally printed. (I’d previously done some experimenting, for a different project, with images inserted into a PDF produced by a word-processor, and printed via Lulu.com. The results were unpredictable, and not to be relied upon.) (And embedding the fonts properly became even more important once I’d fallen in love with the Novella font, which I’d already bought from MyFonts.com. My second expense!)

So I had the booklet as a PDF. Next step — the big step, as far as I was concerned — was finding a printer. There are a lot of them out there, and I spent a couple of weekends reading every detail on every printer’s site I could find. There was a lot of advice on PDF preparation, and I tried to follow it all. (Basically, it came down to what I was expecting anyway — embed fonts, and ensure artwork is of sufficient dpi. The actual dpi required varied from site to site, so I went with 600dpi, which met or exceeded most printers’ minimum requirement. The one thing I hadn’t accounted for was leaving a bleed around the pages, but fortunately Scribus had an easy way of adding this to the whole document in one go.) The prices varied, but generally were reasonable. I could get 100 16-page booklets for a little over £100, so I knew it was within my price range.

So, I had my PDF, scoured over for every possible error, and I had a list of possible printers. Still I hesitated. Why? Simply because the printer’s websites, however much they said “no job too small”, all looked so professional, so businesslike, that my little artistic soul withered in front of them. Here I was, trying to get, gods!, a poem — and my poem, at that — professionally printed. However I might slant it, it was vanity press stuff. Oh, the shame of it! There was nothing to stop each and every printer, when applied to for a quote, from phoning me up and laughing down the line at my temerity, not to mention my prosody. Or perhaps just telling me I couldn’t distill a PDF for toffee (I’m still not sure what PDF distillation is), and that I should take my pathetic efforts to the nearest corner shop photocopier, which was what they deserved.

All right, maybe an exaggeration, but this was pretty much what I was feeling as I timorously prepared to ask for my first quote.

I (rather stupidly) spent some time in that first quote-request pointing out that this was my first go at preparing a PDF for professional printing, and would of course expect the quote to include whatever fee they charged for checking my PDF for possible errors. I then humbly asked what it would cost for 100 A5 16 page booklets, black & white interior, full colour cover.

That first printer didn’t even deign to reply. Maybe I just came across as too amateur. Still, it was sort of crushing.

So, for my next quote request, I dropped the meekness (and all mention of this being my first PDF — damn it, I’d checked the thing over a hundred times) and was as businesslike as possible. And the next printer I contacted ended up being the one I went with (The Digital Printers.co.uk). They said quite clearly on their website that they didn’t believe in charging merely for a quick look-over of source PDFs. Plus, they were in Reading, the town where I was born — always a point in anyone’s favour, as far as I’m concerned. And from there, it went smoothly. I got the quote, uploaded my PDF, got an email back suggesting a lamination for the covers, okayed that, and then, a week later, I had my box of Alice at R’lyeh booklets.

That moment — receiving your actual finished, physical copies, tangy with the scent of fresh ink and peppered with paper-dust — is the first heaven of self-publishing. Rather unfortunately, the first two copies I took out to examine were duds. There proved to be a couple of faults with the Alice booklet. In some cases, the cover laminate was peeling. (In none of them was it perfect.) In some, the interior ink seemed to have got stuck to that of another page, and had come off, leaving the text ghosted with a reverse image of another page. But fortunately, the first two copies I examined were the exceptions. The printer had printed slightly more than the 100 copies I’d asked for, and though there were still enough faults I deemed unsellable to push the saleable total to just under 100, I nevertheless had close enough to what I’d wanted, and could lapse back into heaven again. (Perhaps if I’d contacted the printer I might have got them to produce a few more, but I was just pleased to have the booklet at last.)

So, I’d done all that work of writing, illustrating, putting together the booklet and getting it printed. What now? Surely it should get easy from now on?

Not by a long chalk! Now, the hard work began. Because now, I had to get people to buy it!

And I was going to write about that part of the whole process here, but there’s enough to say about that for a whole ‘nother entry, so it’ll have to wait till next time.