Friday 30 September 2011

Can't run, can't hide

Yesterday I went to see an editor. While I was chatting to him, another editor - who I have known for a very long time, and written many books for - wandered past. It was a lovely surprise to see her. And then she asked me about this blog. She had come across it and worked out it's mine just from the writing style and content, without looking at my profile page. That's a very cool and talented editor. I take my hat off to her. And I will quake a little more in my boots, now.

[Not really - I am happy to own up to everything here. If I wanted the blog to be anonymous, it would be!]

Saturday 24 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for day job

Many publishers assume writers have a so-called 'day job'. It helps them excuse (to themselves) the pitiful  fees or advances they offer most writers; it's all OK, writers are doing something else for money. 'Don't give up the day job!' they say nervously, or with a laugh, when telling you the scandalously low offer. Now look here, publishers. Writing IS my day job. Just as editing is yours. That's why you want to commission me - because I'm a professional. So cut this crap about a day job.

Of course, no one comes out of an MA in Creative Writing, sends off the novel they have been working on for the last year and by return of post gets an advance they can live while writing the next novel . Or maybe someone has, once, done that, but it is not the usual way of proceeding. Sorry, MA hopefuls. So unless they are living on daddy's millions or a spouse with an income, most writers start off by doing something else while they're learning their craft. As do most actors, musicians, sculptors and artists of many other types. But that does not mean that the'll always have a day job. By the time you are commissioning them, they have obviously already learned their craft or you wouldn't want their book. It certainly does NOT mean that writing should be so poorly paid (for the writer, but not the editor, publisher, bookseller, bla bla) that a full-time writer can't support themselves . An actor in an amateur production is not paid; a writer knocking up stories for a tiny magazine is not paid (or not much). But once you are acting in TV series or writing for so-called reputable publishers, you should be paid because clearly your work is now good enough for someone to make money from it. And that someone should be you, not just other people.

There is something of a distinction to be made here between fiction and non-fiction writing, especially for children. It's easy for the publisher to think to themselves, 'Ah, she likes writing these stories, so she will want to do them anyway. Getting some money is a bonus.' (Crap, by the way - you want it, you pay for it.) They are less likely to think someone might spend their leisure time writing trade books about earthquakes, or fast cars, or textbooks about bacteria. But publishers still don't necessarily pay properly for these, especially the text book. After all, some text books are written by teachers, aren't they? And teachers have a day job so they don't need much money. Crap again - you want their time, you pay for it.

Some children's non-fiction is written for a flat fee. The fee should obviously reflect the amount of time the writer is expected to put in. So if you are offered a fee of £1500 for 48 pages (which used to be typical, but it's fallen over the last five years and you might be offered only £1200), you need to know how long you can afford to work for that money. We could get into lots of complicated stuff about finance here, but all I will say is that you must remember the £1500 is not your income but your turnover. It has to cover expenses such as computer costs and heating your house during the day while you work in it. It has to cover non-earning time such as the time you spend answering emails, chasing late payments and putting together proposals for books that are never sold to a publisher. So they're not going to get three weeks, are they? This is when they might mention the 'day job'. Hey, publishers: I will not work for virtually nothing so that your publishing company can make money on what they will otherwise claim is not a viable book. Is the editor working for less than the going rate? Or less than they were paid ten years ago? No. Are you paying less than the going rate for your electricity? No. What will happen if I go to Waitrose and ask if I can have my food for less this week because my overheads have risen? What do you think?

At the back of all this is the person who really does have a day job. There are plenty of people who are teachers, farmers, accountants and so on who have a steady income and also write. But that doesn't mean their time is not valuable! They are writing instead of playing with their children, watching television, visiting friends. If a publisher intends to make money from that person's writing, they should pay a fair rate for it. Anything else is exploitation. Fiction is tricky - writers write at different rates. I write at different rates! I have written a book that has taken ten years and a book that has taken two hours. Of course a publisher can't pay an advance of £400,000 because it took you 10 years to write your novel. What is not acceptable is for a publisher who wants to produce (say) an A level guide to budget £400 for the author, knowing that it means someone with at least degree-level skills in that subject will have to work for less than £5 an hour to do it, even if they do have a 'day job' that pays the bills. It's less than the minimum wage.

I have turned down (of course) requests to write a book for £200 - a 96-page book, not a 30-word board book. The publishers are affronted and say 'there are plenty of people wanting to be writers...' And I say, 'fine, use them. They are inexperienced, and you'll spend the extra on badgering or tutoring them and paying editors.' Yes, there are lots of people who want to be writers - but very few of them are any good. Most of the good ones (who are committed and ready) are already writers. Oh - and another thing: the deadlines usually suggest you don't have a day job as they could not be met by someone working odd evenings and weekends.

Isn't it rather odd that publishers consider the people who produce the main component of their product to be doing something else most of the time? Isn't it rather dodgy to build a multi-million dollar industry on a bunch of people whose attention is usually somewhere else? And is there any other industry that is so dismissive of its suppliers?


Thursday 15 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for digital

This post is not what you expect. It's not going to waffle on about the advantages or disadvantages of e-books and apps or digital rights. There's enough of that out there already. Instead I am going to tell you what digital really means. There is a lot of mystification going on - some deliberate and some just the result of extensive ignorance.  

Let's start from the very beginning. 'Digital' means relating to or made from numbers. In terms of information technology, it means anything that can be reduced to the binary state of being stored as 0 and 1, or 'charge' and 'no charge' on a magnetic disk, tape, yadayadayada. A paper book has extension in 3-D space and cannot be stored as a sequence of 0s and 1s. However, it is produced (these days) from computer files that are digitally stored. You could see distributing and consuming books in digital form as a way of cutting out the final stage (paper). That's effectively what an e-book does.

On the other hand, an app adds extra bells and whistles. The book-words are still there, but there are also moving pictures, sound, interactivity. Those are still all stored digitally, though the creation and storage are more complex.

Here's a tekky bit. Look away if tekky bits make you queasy. Jump to the end of the purple part.

Converting just the book-words to the most basic digital format is extremely easy. Look, I can do it now. Take that first sentence: 'Let's start from the very beginning'. I won't do all of it, but here's how it goes:
Let -  three letters. Each is an ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) character
L = 76
e = 101
t = 116

Now we reduce these to binary 
76 = 1001100
101 = 1100101
116 = 1110100

So the first word is stored at the most basic level as 01001100 01100101 01110100 (without the spaces, but that shows you where the breaks are). Now you see why we aren't doing the whole sentence.

Anywhere in the world in any computer system that sequence will translate to 'Let'. That doesn't come with any information, such as font or colour or size, but the sequence of letters is the same. That is all your Kindle does - it converts the numbers back to letters and shows them on the screen. That's not so scary, is it? When you change the size, it's just showing the same thing differently. The 'change the size' instruction is separate from the storage of the text. So a simple e-book is very easy to create. It takes a bit of software that strips out all the crap from your Word File, or InDesign file, or whatever, and leaves pretty much just the letters, the part that can be digitised easily. It's slightly more complex than that, as there are things such as markers that tell the page of contents where to go to. But essentially it is a sequence of letters (ultimately, binary numbers) which is poured into a sort of software envelope that tells the e-book reader how to display it and what to do when you want to follow a link or turn the page. That's all there is to it. The different e-book readers use different envelopes and instructions, which is why you can't read all the different types on all the different readers.

An app is a very different kettle of fish. In an app, the text is the least of your worries. An app is essentially a computer program all on its own, whereas an e-book is not. Digitising pictures and sounds  follows the same principle as digitising text. Do you want more tekky stuff? Look away if not.

A picture on the computer is stored as a series of tiny dots, called pixels. How many pixels are displayed in a given area determines the resolution of the picture. If there are more pixels, more detail can be shown in the picture and so it is a higher resolution picture. Each pixel is a colour. The colour is defined as a combination of red, green and blue light. For the proportion of each, there is a number showing the intensity of that colour. The numbers are in the range 0-255 (there is a reason for this range, but we don't need to go there now). 

So, for each pixel, you have three numbers in the range 0-255.

Black is 000,000,000 (ie no light).
Bright red it 255,000,000 (ie all red and nothing else).
White is 255,255,255 (all colours in equal intensities).

A computer image (displayed, not for hi-res printing) typically has 72 pixels per inch. Is that number familiar? It should be if you are serious about this publishing lark. There are 72 points to an inch. Coincidence? No.

Back to the point: for each inch of image, we now have 72 sets of three numbers. The three numbers are each converted to binary. So that red pixel is represented by the sequence 01111111,00000000,00000000 - and there are 72 x 72 of these for a square inch of screen image, so you can see the info becomes very extensive very quickly. One letter is represented by just one of those numbers, remember.

(So is a picture worth a thousand words? Only if the picture is very small. I counted 90 characters in a square inch of text, so that would be 30 pixels-worth of info (three numbers per pixel, remember). A thousand words, at about six characters per word (including spaces), gives 333 pixels, or a picture about a quarter of an inch square. I'll go for the words, thanks.)

There are ways of compressing this information to make it much smaller, and the processes for compressing it are complicated. The computer, iPad, or whatever has to take the compressed picture information and restore it to full picture information - there's an extra step there that is not there with plain text.

Digitising the text, pictures and sound is the easy bit. The difficult bit is making the app work through time, with interactivity and animation. The techniques have all been around for a long time, but they take expert knowledge to do well - just as book design takes expert knowledge to do well. Animation is moving pictures - just one of those digitised pictures after another in a rapid sequence (a minimum of ten per second). Making the app do different things at different times or in response to the reader's actions takes proper computer programming. And that's where the problems start for publishers who don't have their own programmers. But we won't go into that just now.

The worst apps just present text and pictures with minimal animation or interactivity. There are apps out there (plenty of them, but I won't name names) which are no better than sort of animated stories we had on the BBC micro in the 1980s. They give digital a bad name. The good apps - Nosy Crow's Three Little Pigs, Faber's The Waste Land, Wolfram Alpha's The Elements - are brilliant marriages of interactivity, text, images and sound that deliver more than a paper book can. And they cost a fortune to develop. That's why all bets are off in the digital royalties department for a decent app, but you should get a decent (25% minimum) royalty on a straight e-book. Which point is why all this was relevant to you, as a writer. You need to know WHY a deal is good or bad.


Tuesday 6 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for dummy

Dummy: stupid person, thing babies suck, or book with no content. Let's go for the last. This could be the Dummy's guide to Dummies.

A dummy is a plain-paper mock-up of a book that shows the size, paper quality, possibly the real cover, and other physical aspects. In novelty books, it shows paper-engineering features such as flaps, gatefolds and pop-ups. You'll see these dummies at book fairs. They are made by the publisher (or paper engineer) and you don't need to worry about them as a writer - unless you are also a paper engineer, of course.

Just to add to the confusion, if you write/illustrate picture books a dummy is something else. It is a mock-up of the finished book as you see it, with rough illustrations and text in place. It may be the right size, but it need not be. The point of the dummy is to show the editor the arrangement of pictures and text that you envisage. It's much easier to do with a dummy than by describing it. To make it, you make copies of your illustrations and print out the text (or scan in and add the text in Quark or whatever) and paste them onto pieces of paper. You can glue or stitch them into a book or leave them as loose pages as you wish. Loose pages are easier for the editor to photocopy for acquisitions meetings, but a bound dummy can give a better idea of what the book will be like. I'm not going to go into great detail about how to make a dummy as you can find out here and I want some breakfast now.