Friday, 31 May 2013

How to speak publisher: F is for frontispiece

This is not a word publishers say a lot. But I think frontispieces should make a comeback.

The frontispiece is the illustration at the start of a book, facing the title page. It's not the same as decorated endpapers or an illustration the title page. It's a little advertisement for a book. It was used in the days before blurbs on the back cover, self-puffing on Twitter, and Amazon reviews to give people a flavour of the book. It was the equivalent 'I've just published my book, why not buy it? #mybookisgreat' tweet, but more intelligent - it had to encapsulate what the publisher thought would attract a reader to the book, but using a picture to advertise a book that was entirely prose.

Sometimes the frontispiece is a picture of author. That's a bit dull. But if the author is already known, it's an incitement to keen readers to read this book, too. I'm not showing those here. You know what authors look like.
Frontispiece to Elementary Chemistry,
project Gutenberg

A picture of the subject of the book is more interesting. This is a portrait of Lavoissier from a book called Elementary Chemistry, published in 1905. Below the portrait is an unfortunate scene - Lavoissier being interrupted in his laboratory by officers of the Revolutionary Committe, shortly before he was executed by guillotine. This makes chemistry look a more exciting and dangerous pursuit than many might immediately suppose. Why Lavoissier? Well, he was considered the 'father of chemistry'. It's an aspirational picture in a way - elementary chemistry is the first step towards being Lavoissier. Preferably without the sticky end, but hey - chemistry is exciting and dangerous. You could blow yourself up at any moment.

But a frontispiece can go further than that in misleading the reader. How about this one? It's the frontispiece to an edition of the works of Aristotle (c.1850). Now, I've just finished writing The Story of Philosophy, and I can assure you that Aristotle did not write one single raunchy novel - or not one that has survived. If ever there was a frontispiece that could be deemed misrepresentation, this is it. The volume contains Aristotle's Directions for Midwives, and includes Counsel and Advice to Child-Bearing Women (in Victorian English terminology). I suppose the nude-woman-geting-into-bed-with-a-man stage is a necessary prerequisite for the midwifery stage. But even so. Hardly legal, decent, honest and truthful. Or indeed any of them. It would fall foul of modern advertising standards.It would be generous to assume the lady on the title page is considering a water birth. I think it's just a gratuitously scantily-dressed lady.

Some are honest representations of what the book is about. That's easier if the book sounds exciting anyway. This is the frontispiece of a book called The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall and published in 1741. Looks good - I'd buy it.

Here's a book that might be exciting if it lives up to the promise of the frontispiece. It's from a book called Wings: A book of flying adventures by W.E.Johns (1931). That's quite a mix of British and German planes - it would certainly have been an adventure. In fact, W.E.Johns did a good line in frontispieces. (He's the Biggles chap.)

I've looked through some of my own books (books that I wrote, rather than that I own) and there are none with frontispieces except a couple of editions of historic texts. A few have a title page illustration that extends over the facing page, but most just have copyright information on the page opposite the title page. It's a shame - I'd rather have a frontispiece than a cover blurb (as long as it doesn't show my photo). Please, publishers, can we go back to frontispieces?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Chasmosaurus

"See that frill? Pretty cool, huh? How can you resist it? See the nice patterns, the blue, the pink? Only the luckiest lady chasmosaurus is going to get to see a bit of this action.

I'm hot, I'm ready, and I'm only 75 million years old. I weigh only a couple of tonnes, I'm a lithe 5 metres long, with not too much tail, and I don't eat meat. What's not to like? Come on, you ladies. Did you see my frill?"

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Bagaceratops

"Good evening. I'm not the most glamorous dinosaur, and I don't even have a glamorous name. I'm a bagaceratops, which sounds very much like the less-interesting cousin of the famous and popular triceratops. And that's how it is, really. No one ever takes any notice of me. I don't have majestic horns. In fact, I do look as if I have a bag over my head.

"If there are any lonely dinosaurs out there who'd like to take a chance on me, do get in touch. I'm about a metre high - I know that's not very big, but I'm quite robustly built. I'm 80 million years old. As you can see, I'm not covered in armour and I don't have any dangerous parts, so don't be wary! I live in Mongolia. I know, it's a long way away...

"I'd like a partner who enjoys peaceful meals of conifers and ferns, doesn't want to rush around being the life and soul of the party, and is tolerant of my rather backward and primitive ways.

"Oh, the beak. Good for cropping ferns, not so good for kissing. Sorry about that."

Monday, 20 May 2013

Dinosaur Date of the Day: Chialingosaurus

I'm writing a dinosaur book. Yay! Best project *ever*! As I can't contain my dinosaur excitement until it's published, I'm going to do a little 'dinosaur date of the day' post each day I work on the book. This will whet your appetite for lots of dinosaurs. But I don't expect you to wait for the book. Go and enjoy some dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum in London, or your nearest dinosaur emporium.

Today's dinosaur is Chialingosaurus. Only one has ever been found, so it's a lonely dinosaur. In fact, only part of one has been found...

"Hello. I'm a a sort of stegasaurus with some super, spiny spikes instead of all those sedate, safe-looking plates. I have some plates, but they're a bit too cutesy for my taste - I'm pretty big on spikes!

I'm looking for an easy-going partner, up to 4 metres long, to share vegetarian meals. My preferred location is China. I'd like a partner who is 142-159 million years old, and not too chunky - no more than 150 kg, please. I'm an Ankylosaurid dinosaur, and I'd like to meet another Ankylosaurid."

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Watching planes crash

I've been watching The Battle of Britain (1969). And later today I'll be in the Science Museum in London looking at an Ox-box (Airspeed Oxford), and imagining my characters into it. This is for a story with a fairly specific brief and the setting is rather outside my comfort zone, so I'm doing a lot of almost-real-world research. Actually, although I say it's outside my comfort zone, I've ended up writing quite a lot about aeroplanes in the last year. This is despite a longstanding vow never to write about sport, music or engineering. I'm on my fourth engineering book in 12 months, not counting the story.

But to the film. How do you find out how a pilot escapes a WW2 plane when it catches fire? How do you find out how much noise the engines make, how a plane crashes into the water and how long a 1940s parachute takes to open? I've been to Duxford (the aeroplane bit of the Imperial War Museum) and talked to experts but these are the kind of details you don't find in books or objects. Even contemporary accounts of flying and crashes don't itemise the details that were obvious to the participants, but that disappear into history as planes and procedures change.

Film is perfect. Newsreel film is best, but even fictional films are fine as long as you can trust them to be accurate. That means they must either be well researched, or made sufficiently close to the times they portray to be necessarily accurate. People would mock a film that got it wrong when the events depicted are still well within living memory. Many of those involved in making The Battle of Britain would have been in the war, or in the forces soon afterwards as National Service recruitees. So I'll trust them to show me how planes crashed in 1941. And even if they're wrong, they will fit in with how we imagine planes crash.

It can be a problem when research reveals that the popular conception of something is wrong. Then your book can be accused of being wrong when it's not, and it's everything else that's wrong. But I'm assuming this isn't the case with film of how planes crash, since some planes had to be crashed to make it.

I first saw The Battle of Britain when it came out. I went with my father - who had been in the RAF - to a cinema in Aldershot, home of the British army. At the time I had no idea, being very small, of the significance of that. There would have been plenty of people in the audience who remembered the events - and they loved the film (perhaps because it's full of jingoist heroism, of course). I'll trust those servicemen from 45 years ago. They would have had no truck with blatant technical inaccuracy, at least.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Market envy - quit whingeing and write something

Can we trust readers to know what they like? Writers - at least children's writers - tend to think that we can't.

Whenever you get two or more writers together, there's bound to be grumbling about some new writer being given a good deal, or about the sales of some perceived-to-be-not-very-good book, or the marketing spend behind a perceived-to-be-not-very-good book. The subtext is 'why didn't I get a good deal/high sales/decent marketing spend?' And the tacitly agreed conclusion is: because people buy what is marketed at them; publishers only like books that will become bestsellers; and publishers choose the books to turn into bestsellers on some odd basis that seems to be centred on the criterion 'not written by the authors who are grumbling'.

Let's take a look at this. Market envy is based on assuming publishers are stupid/evil and book-buyers are gullible. Or that publishers want to make money. Well, wow. It's a business - of course they do. Now, I am not defending the current market practices in publishing - but we aren't going to change them by whingeing.

Do the data support the popular view? The top 10 bestsellers (children/YA) in UK in 2012 were, in order:

1,2,3 - The Hunger Games trilogy
4 - War Horse
5 - A Diary of a Wimpy Kid title
6 - The Hobbit
7 - Another Wimpy Kid title
8 - Billionaire Boy (David Walliams)
9 - Ratburger (David Walliams)
10 - Mr Stink (David Walliams)

I've only read the first Hunger Games book, but it's well written and there's no reason teens shouldn't like it. It has plot, it has characters, it's a perfectly respectable mass-market read. It's not 50 Shades.

War Horse. Well, that's by a former children's laureate deemed to be one of our best children's authors. At number 4. Don't make excuses about films and plays - it's at number 4.

Wimpy Kid - these get young kids, especially boys, reading. They speak directly to the insecurity in kids and provide something they need. A good thing. They have spawned a bunch of spin-offs, some of which might not be very good, but that in itself shows they do something that kids like.

The Hobbit - well, obviously there's a film. But the book is a classic. We aren't going to complain about kids reading Tolkien, are we? It's not exactly manufactured pap produced in a cynical marketing move.

I don't know the David Walliams books, but they look decent enough. Billionaire Boy has 224 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.5 which suggests firstly that people like it and secondly that it appeals to people who will write reviews. They're not Rainbow Fairies, are they? In fact, you have to get as far as number 15 in the bestsellers list before finding anything that could be considered manufactured, and that's the One Direction 2013 Annual. The Beano Annual is the only other non-fiction title in the top 20, and I suspect there are a lot of people who will defend the Beano.

Which of these ten books initially had a massive marketing spend? Only the Hunger Games titles. Collins got a six-figure deal for three books and a first print-run of 50,000 (hardback). That's a good deal, but it was in the US where there is a larger book-buying public, and before the recession. It was perceived as cross-over, so the deal was closer to book deals for adults. ('Six figures' is anything between $100,000 and $999,999. It is not, as many people imagine, an advance of a $1m, which would be seven figures.) The big break for Hunger Games was the sale of foreign rights into 38 territories. That isn't part of a secret publishing cabal - foreign rights sell if foreign publishers think they can make money from the book.

Wimpy Kid is the only other series represented in the list. The first title, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, emerged as popular and big spends followed on subsequent titles. And, er, isn't that what we are all hoping for? That kids will like our books and so we will get a better deal next time?

If a writer chooses to write niche literary fiction, they are not likely to get mega-sales., though they just might if they strike a chord. If a writer wants to make money, or (less cynically) if what they happen to want to write is something that's more likely to make money - a series about a dyslexic fairy, dinosaur pirates, whatever - they will (if they do it well) command a larger market. It's not rocket science.

It's a normal distribution curve. Write for the ends - the very reluctant readers, or the very sophisticated readers - and you're likely to have fewer sales. Write for the big bulge of kids who just want an exciting adventure or some funny, familiar stuff and you stand a chance of making more money if you do it well. And well doesn't mean all the best metaphors, it means what people want to buy.

The thing is, you aren't going to change what people want to read so that it matches what you want to write. And that list of bestsellers doesn't suggest people want to read crap. They want to read decent books. Just maybe not yours. Or mine.