Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Powder Burn - Independently Publishing a Novel in 2013

It was back in September 2009 that I self- or independently-published my first novel, The Defector. It had been previously published by Random House in the UK and HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand. I knew I had a clean manuscript, so it was just a matter of wrestling with the conversion from Word Perfect 5.1 to MS Word. When I’d figured that out, I read the Smashwords Style Guide to format the MS Word document. And then I loaded it onto the Smashwords website. I added a cover that had been designed by a friend and I was done. Ta-daa. Novel, meet world. World, meet novel. I sat back and waited to see what would happen.

Three and a half years later, publishing a novel independently is a rather different process. Some of the differences stem from the fact that the latest novels are new books that have never been published before. Others stem from the fact that the world has moved on. The process of publication for my latest book, Powder Burn went like this...

The book was read and analysed by my favourite structural editor a while back. I don’t know if that’s the correct name for it (or even if there is a correct name) but by structural editor I mean someone who goes through the book looking for weaknesses in the plot, lack of consistency in the characters, bad pacing – all that good story stuff. The structural editor does not care so much about grammar, never mind punctuation, their job is to analyse the structure of the story. I have to be really happy with the book before I get this edit done – I usually, foolishly, believe the book is finished - but they always spot something, often quite a big thing for the final rewrite.

I finished that rewrite over the New Year and as I think I mentioned previously, this was the last of eight drafts. In early January I was able to create some roughly formatted and unedited copies of the final draft. I asked for ‘Beta’ readers on my Facebook page, volunteers to read the book who would give me feedback. And I asked some trusted friends to do the same thing. In all, about twelve people read it over the next few weeks, and they all had at least one important contribution to the finished book.

While that process was going on, I searched for a cover designer. I’ve previously written about using for my covers, and although I’ve been happy with this I had been looking at other options and I really liked the work of Stewart Williams. I thought he was the right guy for the cover I had in mind. I’d noticed the new set of Thomas and Mercer (an Amazon imprint) covers for Ian Fleming’s 007 books, and really liked them. They use a white background and stand out against the almost uniformly dark covers that are currently fashionable. John Locke was doing something vaguely similar and I figured that these are two pretty savvy operators - perhaps white backgrounds and graphics was a bandwagon I should jump on.

Stewart liked those other covers too and was happy to work along those lines. We quickly struck a deal and he started work. It took three or four weeks to get the cover right, and during this time I was working on the changes to the manuscript suggested by my Beta readers. By the beginning of March, I had a cover and I had a story I was happy with – it was time for the manuscript to go to the copy editor. I use a guy in the States, Neal Hock and I had already scheduled the copy edit with him. Neal usually takes a week to ten days to complete the copy edit, and when the manuscript comes back I mostly just had to go through it clicking ‘Accept Changes’.

The final stage is the formatting and as I said, I used to do this myself. I’m still comfortable preparing the manuscript for Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing, but I decided to get some help with an ePub edition to load to the new Kobo direct publishing option, Writing Life. I used the same person that had previously done my CreateSpace PDFs, Heather at the CyberWitch Press – unfortunately, she’s closed to new clients, otherwise I’d recommend her, she’s wonderful.

Once I have the final files ready - Heather is working on them as this is published - it’s just a matter of loading them onto Smashwords, Kindle and Kobo and pressing go at the right time. For the Kindle that will be 3rd April. Of course, that’s when the real work begins. Back in 2009 I just sat and waited to see what happened next, this time I’ll be a little more proactive, but I’ll tell you about that next month.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The NFL - America’s Favourite Socialist Sport

It was a phrase that I’d heard in television interviews a few times, but only recently did I hear it for real - Obama’s turning this country socialist. I’m a Brit and (on this occasion at least) I was far too polite to argue with my American friend - hey, it’s not my country... But afterwards, it struck me that what I should have said (don’t you always think of the right response too late?) was that in one very high-profile arena, the USA has been running a socialist system for years. And as far as I’m aware, President Obama has nothing to do with the operation of the NFL, America’s favourite spectator sport.

In Europe, the top professional sport is football (or soccer) and it’s run on ruthless market principles. Television revenue for the top leagues is divided according to performance. And if a club has a bad enough season then relegation looms – the club drops down to a lower league and the money from spectators, television and all the other sports franchise income sources goes south with it.

The following season the relegated club has to compete to try to return to the old league, and do it with less of everything – money, good players and crowds. It’s a punishing regime, and teams can get into a spiral of failure and drop like a stone through successive leagues in successive seasons, some go bankrupt and disappear altogether. Like any rigorous capitalist system failure is brutally punished and success is hugely rewarded.  

In contrast, the NFL rewards failure and punishes success in an effort to keep the teams evenly balanced. All revenue is shared more or less equally whether you have a good, bad or indifferent season. And there is just the one league with a (more or less) fixed set of teams – no relegation. Occasionally new franchises start and old ones fold or move, but most of the time if a team does badly they stay right where they are in the NFL. There is no punishment from the league itself for failure to perform...  in fact, quite the opposite.

During the NFL’s off-season, the latest draft of players coming out of the college system are farmed out to the clubs – and the worse performing teams get the first pick of players. If they pick right, they get the best new players to kick-start the process of improvement. The NFL is run on a system designed to maintain equality, and to give every opportunity for improvement to those performing badly. Now, if that’s not a system run on socialist principles then I don’t know what is...

Of course, the NFL isn’t a country, it’s a sports league competing against other sports leagues - not to mention movies, computer games and even books - for the attention and cash of US citizens. And the competition for that attention is run on a ruthlessly capitalist system. Sports that don’t get enough attention suffer quickly and cruelly. The NFL is the most successful sport in America, so it’s interesting to note that in order to achieve success in a wider capitalist system, the NFL has adopted socialist principles for its internal functioning. I can’t help thinking that there might be other areas where this same approach could be applied. Like education. Or medicine.  

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Thriller Reading Round-Up...

It’s been a busy month. I’m in the final stages of production for my new thriller, Powder Burn, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as research for a new Janac’s Games short story called The Sniper. It’ll be the next book after Powder Burn, and the first of several about Janac’s time in Vietnam. The idea is to track how he made it through the war, and developed contacts in that part of the world to build his drug empire. I thought I’d call them the Origins books to separate them from the main novels.

So, I’ve been reading various accounts of the Vietnam War, and remembering the nature of that horrific conflict. Long before there were suicide bombers in Iraq, there were sappers in Vietnam. I grew up in a world saturated with Second World War stories and movies, and I can still remember reading a newspaper headline announcing that American casualties had reached 50,000 in Vietnam. I was very young and I didn’t even know that there had been a war going on - how could that be possible? Wars were something that happened in the distant past, not now, and certainly not with America involved.

I remember it so vividly for two reasons; firstly it was a massive wake-up call to a child - I was new to this world and I needed to pay attention. I’ve been a huge follower of current affairs ever since. And secondly, as I learned more and more about Vietnam I began to slide from a belief in a black and white world of good and evil to one filled with shades of grey. Michael Herr’s book Dispatches was central to that coming of age. I still live in that world today, as anyone who has read the Janac’s Games books will know. It feels appropriate to be returning to the Vietnam War to tell more of his story.

All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be reviewing the non-fiction. I had a go at one in the last blog round up, but I think I’d rather stick to reviewing what I know about - thrillers. And last month I read a couple of highly contrasting, but linked, books.

I first became aware of Barry Eisler after the controversy surrounding his decision to turn down a serious amount of money from a traditional publisher, in favour of bringing the books out himself. Subsequently, he accepted a deal with one of Amazon’s publishing imprints, and hasn’t looked back. Meanwhile, I became a fan of his blog; his writing on book marketing, the publishing industry and politics is always engaging, entertaining and usually right on the money.

I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to try one of his thrillers – I think it was the lack of availability as a reasonably priced e-book, something that Eisler is planning to fix. But having finally got to it, I’m happy to report that Eisler deserved every penny of whatever money Amazon threw at him – The Detachment is an excellent book by a man as fascinated with the shades of grey as I am.

Eisler has been writing about the assassin John Rain for a while, and this is the latest of those books. I guess it’s not an ideal place to start as I came into it with none of Rain’s backstory – but it didn’t matter. The book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller, while the writer still encouraged me to go back and read the earlier ones by making some adroit references to Rain’s previous adventures.

Barry Eisler’s bio says he worked for the CIA in a covert position, and it shows. Or, at least it shows as far as I – a civilian – can tell. The book has an incredibly authentic feel, that’s the first thing. The second is that it rips along at pace, with a rock solid and all-to believable underlying conspiracy at the centre of the plot. John Rain, the conflicted killer is a terrific central protagonist, and the other characters that make up The Detachment are all well drawn and keep you guessing. My pulse was racing in the final set-piece shoot up – only the denouement of Argo has matched that recently. I hope we see more of Rain, and the other characters in The Detachment, but I will most certainly be reading more Eisler either way – ‘nuff said about this one. Five stars.

Ironically, John Locke also came to my attention as a result of an ebook publishing controversy – he was one of the first really successful independents. He wrote a book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5Months! and I have a copy - I know, I know, sucker. I even read it, and I thought there was one interesting marketing idea and I went so far as to try it. It didn’t work. It turns out the book was probably b******s. Allegedly, Locke was successful because he had the cash from his other businesses to pay for 300 book reviews on Amazon, enough to get him off the launch pad.

I didn’t want to like this book, and to start with I didn’t – particularly coming to it off the back of the hyper-real Eisler book. The central character Donnie Creed is an assassin just like John Rain, but that’s where the comparison ends - there is nothing real about him. He has himself tortured to build up his resistance to pain, sleeps in other people’s attics to build up his skills at undetected intrusion, and otherwise lives in a prison cell so he’s used to it when he inevitably goes to jail. Right. Of course he does.

And then, with the help of a Goodreads friend, I got it. It’s not meant to be real or anything like it - this is black comedy, satire. And as such, it’s not bad at all – so long as you can get past the grim violence. The writing is uneven and could use a decent editor and personally, I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny. Nevertheless, Locke has created a very engaging character in Donnie Creed, and his first person narrative voice does keep you turning the pages. I doubt I’ll buy another one, as it’s not really my cup of tea, but I can see why Locke has sold a lot of books. Three stars.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

About... Mark Chisnell

I've been thinking that it was about time to update the 'Bio' section on my website, which was a bit rambling and off the point. So I did, and then I thought I should post it as a blog, just in case there's anyone out there who's wondering why I'm doing this...

I grew up in a small town on the east coast of England, a town dominated by the rise of the oil industry and the decline of shipbuilding and fishing. I messed around in boats and read everything written by Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming and many more like them – but the sea was a non-negotiable part of everyone’s life in that little town, and a future as some sort of marine engineer seemed inevitable.

And then I found a copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a hill cabin in England’s Lake District. A mix of a hang-over and too much snow restricted any other activity – well, it was New Year – and so I read it over a couple of days.

The cover said it would change the way I thought and felt about the world, and the funny thing was... it did. Pirsig’s exploration of quality and values inspired me to drop my plans for engineering, and take philosophy along with physics at college. I also learned that books work - they’re important and they can change your life. I wanted to write one. I wanted to write lots.

Those were the days before 19-year olds got seven figure advances for Young Adult novels, and I (rather sweetly in retrospect) believed that I needed to know about the world before I could write about it - at least that was my excuse for buying a one-way ticket and, with US$400 in my pocket, climbing on the plane to Los Angeles.

By the time I got home three years later, I’d had a couple of travel stories published in the New Zealand Herald and the South China Morning Post. And I’d hitch-hiked to Mt Everest base-camp in Tibet. In Adidas trainers. It was either my greatest achievement, or the stupidest. A year later a fully-equipped British summit attempt was airlifted out from the same spot - cue icy chills down the spine when I read that news story.

I’d also got involved in the 1987 America’s Cup, a professional sailboat race. Before I knew it, I was being asked to fly around the world to glamorous places - Honolulu, San Francisco, Sardinia and the Caribbean - and being paid to race sailboats. It was an impossibly long way from the life I’d grown up to in that fishing and oil town – and far too good to turn down. The writing would have to wait.

It didn’t have to wait long. I quickly started to write about the sport I was so immersed in, publishing hundreds of thousands of words in books and articles on sailing, and winning a couple of awards along the way. And I started to think about a novel - I had an idea from all those philosophy lectures I had endured, a game of the Prisoner's Dilemma played for life and death. The Defector and then the rest of the Janac’s Games series grew out of that idea.

My goal for that first book and all my novels since was to keep the reader turning the pages, but to leave them with something to think about afterwards.

What will you do...?

The Defector was first published in the UK by Random House (as The Delivery), and got rave reviews in the trade literature. It was followed up by The Wrecking Crew, the second in what would become the Janac’s Games series. Initially, this second book was rejected by London publishers and it seemed that my fiction career was over – but I kept working at it, and a few years later HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand published them both to coincide with what would be the last big contest in my sailing career, the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland.

I realised that I had been given a second chance at my life’s dream of writing novels, but that this time I must fully focus on it. It was time to close the door on my sports career – I didn’t have the time or energy for both. What followed was a transitional decade, but I was still lucky enough to get involved in some very cool projects. I went to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on a beautiful sailing boat. I got to write for some of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers, including Esquire and the Guardian, and I worked in television for a while, commentating and script-writing.

There was also a revolution in publishing going on. The Kindle and other eBook readers transformed the business opportunities for writers, and I was quick to take advantage of them to get control of the way my novels were published. The Janac’s Games books found success in the eBook formats, and were followed up by The Fulcrum Files – historical fiction of which I’m very proud - and then the first of the Burn series, Powder Burn featuring Sam Blackett, my favourite character to date. There will be more, lots more. Just like I hoped all those years ago.