Wednesday 24 November 2010

How to speak publisher - A is for Apps

If you are not very tekkie, talk of apps, Kindle, e-books and enhanced e-books may have you quaking in your sophisticated writerly boots (or Uggs, depending on your style). We'll get to the others eventually but they don't start with A so be patient. Don't worry - it's not that scary.

An app is not an e-book. If your publisher brings out a Kindle edition of your book, that is not an app. If your publisher produces a pdf of your book, that is not an app (and it's probably not a publisher either - pdfs are for pirate copies and to give to printers, they are not for public consumption these days. How 1990s.)

App is short for application. If you have a sophisticated phone (a 'smart phone') like an iPhone or an Android phone (the Google phone software that competes with Apple), you can use apps on it. If you have an iPad you will use apps on it - you have to, it doesn't do anything else! From now on I'm going to call these iThings and mean all of them. You might have apps to help you find your way when you get lost, apps to play games, apps to make stupid noises... I even have an app to turn my iPad into a spirit level because I couldn't find the real spirit level when I was putting up a towel rail. It's not much use day to day, except perhaps as a sobreity test.

Now, you can get book apps and you can get apps to read books. These are not the same thing. An example of an app to read books is the Kindle software which you can install on your iThing . You can then get books from the Kindle store on Amazon and they will be electronically schlurped into the Kindle app so that you can read them on your iThing. These books look rather like a printed book, and are effectively a printed book that is just read on a screen. There are a few things you can't do with a printed book, such as change the size of the print, and a lot of things you can't do with a Kindle book that you can do with a real book, such as squash wasps. But the model is 'let's make a book you can read on an iThing' and that's all. Nothing extra. Oh, and you can install the Kindle reader on your computer if you don't have an iThing.

Now we get to the point. An app that is a book is free-standing. You don't open it in Kindle or any other bit of software as it is itself a bit of software. So you can think of a Kindle book as being like a Word document and you need Word (or in this case the Kindle reader) to open it. But a proper book app runs on its own. It's like playing Minesweeper or Halo III or Solitaire - it doesn't need any other software. Some other analogies: a Kindle book is like a virus (has to exist in a living cell); an app is like a bacterium (can survive on its own). A Kindle book is like an airline passenger (not going anywhere without a plane); an app is like a pedestrian (self-propelling). A Kindle book is a tapeworm; an app is an earthworm. Got it?

While a Kindle book emulates a real book, an app is something altogether different. It can and should provide a lot more than just some text. There may be pictures, video, sound, animation, and interactivity of various types. ('Interactivty' means you can do things, like drag stuff around the screen or tap on it to make things happen.) The books that work best as apps are generally picture books and illustrated non-fiction. The flashy add-ons help to engage a small child and draw them in to explore the book and develop their reading, or to add extra information of types that can't be put across on the printed page. You want to see how a spider scuttles, hear the noise of the space shuttle taking off or watch a schematic animation of the movement of a piston? An app can do that, but the printed page can't. A lift the flap book is delightful - but if the monster scuttles from under the stone and hides somewhere else when you 'lift' the stone, the game can go on. In marketing speak, apps add to the reading experience. This can be valuable - or it can be insulting and a pain, but no-one made you buy the app.

Apps of novels are a different matter. The joy of reading a novel is using your own imagination to create the parts the author has left out. Yes, it might be useful to hear the piece of music described, or to see the historic monument visited. But I don't want to see someone else's idea of what the characters look like or to hear their voices (ie an actor's voice) or see the inside of the rooms or the path they walk down. Those are my contribution to the novel, they occupy the space the writer has left for my creativity and I don't want them invaded by someone else's ideas. It's like seeing a film of a novel - it's very hard to get the new interpretation out of your head. So I won't be buying apps of any novels in the near future. But that's a personal choice.

As a writer, why should you care about apps? Well, you need to be careful which rights you sell and what they mean. Most publishers want electronic rights to your books when you sign a contract these days. These can be limited in various ways - eg the publisher has the rights for two years and if publisher doesn't exploit them they revert to you. Electronic rights do not automatically cover apps rights, which should be a subsidiary right (like TV, merchandising and film rights). You should endeavour to get apps rights specifically excluded from the deal, as most publishers are not doing anything at all with these rights in most books. You don't want, really, to tie your rights to a heavy stone and chuck them in the canal.

If your book is to come out as an app (and you didn't write it with that in mind), there will be a lot of extra work for you to do. Or there should be. There should be consultation on images and sound, a request for extra material from you, and so on. You will need to negotiate payment for this, and the royalty you expect from the app. Here you are in uncharted territory, or at least the lawless wild west of publishing. Many writers feel they should get a higher royalty for e-books than paper books (in reality this depends on the format, and whether the book already exists in paper format, in which case conversion is cheap). Apps are different. A good app costs more to produce than a paper book. But a bad app is cheap to produce. If all the app does is read out the story and show some static pictures or very simple animations, it doesn't cost any more to produce than a full-colour paper book. If it has lots of interactivity, animation, sound, multi-threading (ie you can use the 'pages' in different orders) and other bells and whistles, it will cost a lot to produce. It's open season - negotiate strenuously.

But be aware that if you get an all-singing, all-dancing app, the publisher will have a lot of costs to recoup.
Another problem for publishers is that apps are platform-specific. This means that if an app has been made for Apple i-Things it won't run on Android i-Things. An app made for Android iThings won't run on Apple iThings and it won't even run on most Android iThings as there is little consistency between the devices. You could think of it as being like different language versions - if your book is printed in English, it's not going to be much use to someone who only speaks Arabic. But it's a bit more complex and the app has to be rebuilt to run on different platforms, then tested all over again... it's a costly process.

This means that for all the shouting about apps, they're not actually making anyone very much money yet. Publishers think they have to do it, but most publishers have little experience of software development and don't have a clue just how many worms are in the can they're opening. There will be casualties...
One problem, especially for small publishers who are having to depend on freelance app designers, is that software people don't live by the same rules as publishers. They are hard to manage. They are likely to take a dislike to a publisher or project or become bored and dump them. Which they can - they finish the current app and go off to Africa for six months because it's more fun to see elephants than to animate imaginary elephants. It's not going to be an easy ride.

To see some apps in action, if you don't have an iThing, look on YouTube for reviews and demos.
Here's a (rather frantic) demo of the famous Alice app, which was the first really to exploit the (Apple) platform but is actually designed to show off what can be done rather than add anything for target-age readers. And here is a review of Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat. This is an underspecified app - it does pretty much nothing except read the text aloud and annotate the pictures with some useful words. And here is one that does as it really should and makes creative use of the technology in a way appropriate and enhancing for the readers: Oliver Jeffers' The Heart and the Bottle. The picture at the top of the page is from Feridun Oral's Red Apple published by Winged Chariot. Their apps offer the text in a range of languages - that's a good (if obvious) use of the technology.

Monday 15 November 2010

How to speak publisher - A is for Acquisitions

It's not usually enough to persuade an editor that your book is the best thing (s)he has ever seen - the editor generally has to sell the book in-house. You don't get a contract unless the editor can persuade those who hold the purse-strings that your book is pretty damn good, and one of the best of those they have to choose from. This happens (you hope) first at an editorial team meeting and then at the acquisitions meeting. (There are exceptions; in a few publishing houses, editors have the authority to sign a book for their list without negotiating with other departments. This is how things used to be in the Good Old Days, but it's increasingly rare. These editors often wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. Check your editor's wardrobe to see if this is likely to happen in your case.)

If your editor likes your book or proposal she (it's usually she) will probably discuss it with other editors at a team or editorial meeting, or maybe just informally with one or two colleagues. She does this largely to get feedback and suggestions, to test her championing of your book and make sure she's not going to make a total fool of herself (for example, championing something that everyone else turned down from the slush pile if you have stupidly submitted to more than one editor at the same publishing house). Not all books go through this stage. If she still likes it, she will book a slot to present your book at an acquisitions meeting.

Publishers hold regular acquisitions meetings, but how regularly varies from one publisher to another - it may be as often as weekly, or as infrequently as every two months. At the meeting, your book will be discussed not just by editorial staff, but by representatives of sales and marketing and design, and by the publisher or associate publisher. Your editor is your book's champion at this meeting. Your book is competing with other books for the available publishing slots and budgets.

Your editor will prepare an acquisition proposal that outlines her vision for your book, why she loves it, why it will sell, a description of it (content, style, genre and also physical aspects such as page extent, dimensions, binding, illustrations, etc), and a profit and loss account or detailed budget proposal for it. She will also give an account of you, the author (and any proposed illustrator). This will cover your biography, credentials as a writer, any notable points that will help sell the book (you are very young, beautiful and photogenic, very famous, very traumatised, exceptionally ugly with freak-photo value, or press-worthy in some other regard), previous sales history (your Nielsen BookScan record comes in here) and perhaps reviews of your previous books. She will outline the terms she intends to offer you (which may well be standard) and any other relevant aspects of the contract, such as subsidiary rights, say when she wants to publish and how many copies will make up the first print run. And, of course, your manuscript or proposal will be sent round for everyone to read. Knowing all this will go on should feed into your next proposal and what you tell your editor about yourself. Sell insidiously, start early. Don't ever tell your editor you are too lazy to do X or your first book bombed (they'll probably find out the latter, but maybe not).

At some acquisitions meetings, most books are approved. At others, only a few are approved. It will depend on how many gaps there are in the list, how much money is available, and how good the other proposals or manuscripts are. But even in straitened times, publishers have to acquire some books or they will have nothing to publish. Then they cease to be publishers.

There are three possible outcomes from an acquisitions meeting: they take your book (hooray!); they reject your book; they send the editor off to do more work on the book/proposal before deciding one way or the other. Obviously, your favoured outcome is the first. The second means you can go off and sell your book to someone else (let's put a positive spin on this!). The third means you may have to do some more work with the editor.

The need for a book proposal to go to an acquisitions meeting explains some of the delay between you sending your manuscript and getting a contract. Your editor will have to wait until there is an acquisitions meeting with a slot for her to present your book and draft the proposal. Meetings can be cancelled, or run out of time, and then your book may have to wait until the next meeting. It may be bounced back for more work and have to wait for another slot. It's a business, not a personal put-down machine. Don't worry about it. Write something else while you wait.

Wednesday 10 November 2010


Sorry to be silent for so long, folks. I went to visit Big Bint 10 days ago and caught a horrible bug. And I'm STILL ill. Being ill when you're self-employed is pretty disastrous. No-one pays for days you take off, and the work still has to be done by the agreed deadline, so it's all piling up and getting worse and worse :-(

Tuesday 2 November 2010

NaNoEdMo, anyone?

Unless you've been living in a bag, you can't have failed to notice that it's NaNoWriMo time (the new name for November). I don't do NaNoWriMo - I once tried a spring equivalent, and gave up after 10 days as it just doesn't suit the way I write. Not even that particular project, which had a very experimental structure and premise and could in theory have been written in any order. And if I can't make it work with that, I'm not going to be able to make it work at all, I reckon.

However, inspired by the comments (esp sheilamcperry) on the Crabbit One's blog on why she doesn't do NaNoWriMo, I'm going to try to NaNoEdMo - edit the novel I should have delivered at the end of the summer, in the course of November. Luckily, I've made a start already, so I don't have to sort out quite all 70,000 words during the month. But it is a complex novel with a lot of historical research to check and a lot of emotional baggage weighing it down. So would anyone like to NaNoEdMo with me? It would be nice to have that solidarity and encouragement to keep me on track that the NaNoWriMo'ers have.

(Of course, the only reason it's difficult to edit this novel in a month is that I'm supposed to be doing other things. Such as the last 30,000 words of The Story of Physics, my RLF fellowship at the University of Essex, running BookJam, and getting today's Thrale's event off the ground. And sending an app outline to a publisher, and doing editorial changes to the book on Turing, and waiting to hear from the acquisitions meeting about a picture book, and writing several book reviews and guest blog posts, and doing last month's invoicing and, and.... living. Oh yes, that's the thing writers never have time for. Maybe NaNoLiveMo would be more appropriate.)