Friday, 31 July 2009

That sounds familiar…

I opened the new issue of Mojo the other day and almost had a heart attack. There, in the books section, was a review of a new book called The First Time We Met The Blues. Remind you of anything?

My initial reaction was sheer panic. Does this mean I’ve got to change my title? Or even scrap the whole project? The process of finding a title for a novel is still a mysterious one to me, even though I’m currently working on my fourth. Each time I’ve started without one, and yet something has mysteriously worked its way to the front of my mind and moved from the status of ‘working title’ to something that’s indelibly linked to what I’ve written. It’s the same with First Time I Met The Blues, named after a song by Buddy Guy that one of my characters talks about at one point. (Oddly, I can’t remember now which came first: the scene, or the idea of naming the book after the song.)

Anyway, once I’d calmed down, I decided that this coincidence could actually be a good thing for me. For instance, people searching for the other book online might find this blog instead, or as well (even though I’m not showing up on Google yet – oh yes, I’ve checked). Besides, the rival book isn’t a novel but a memoir, by a bloke who was friends with Jimmy Page when they were teenagers discovering the blues together. Similar subject matter, then, but a completely different treatment. Maybe it’s even a sign that the British Blues Boom of the 60s is coming back into fashion – but no, that’s too fanciful.

Monday, 27 July 2009

It takes Two

One of the names that Jacqueline scribbled on my spreadsheet was that of David Eldridge, founder of graphic design company Two Associates. So it was that on Friday afternoon I found myself tramping the streets of suburban south-west London in a sudden monsoon, in search of their offices in East Sheen.

As a journalist, I’m used to dealing with designers, but I’ve never been particularly good at devising, or communicating, ideas that might help them to illustrate an article. Some people think in words, others in pictures: I’m definitely one of the former – that’s why I need a professional to design my book jacket.

Fortunately, David got the idea very quickly. I’d brought along some visual stimuli – examples of typography and photography from the British blues boom of the 60s, where my novel begins – and he pounced on them with great enthusiasm. I talked him through a couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over for the cover, and left confident that he’ll be able to translate them into something I’ll be not just happy with, but proud of.

That’s the other thing: as with Jacqueline, David’s enthusiasm for the project helped to reinforce the idea that self-publishing doesn’t have to be an apologetic, settle-for-second-best option. We talked about different kinds of binding and typefaces, and the various options for laminating the cover, and I realised that – cost permitting, of course – I really may be able to publish a book that will look as good as something that would emerge from one of the big multinational companies.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Starbucks summit

Step one: get some expert advice. Two separate people from unrelated areas of my life had told me that I should talk to Jacqueline Burns, co-founder of the London Writers’ Club and the website, and it seemed silly to ignore such an obvious piece of serendipity. (Does serendipity come in pieces?) So I arranged to meet Jacqueline early one morning in the basement of the branch of Starbucks just up the road from my office.

I started by giving her a bit of background about my project (as per the entry above) and then showed her the spreadsheet I’d created on which I painstakingly compared the self-publishing companies I’d researched, according to a number of key criteria.

She barely even looked at it: “You should use these people to print the book for you,” she said, scribbling a name on my spreadsheet. “And this guy will do a great job of designing your cover. He can liaise with the printers, too.” Another scribbled name, and that was the two key points I’d wanted to cover dealt with in under five minutes.

That gave us 55 minutes to talk over the details of what I could expect from the process, what I needed to do to make it work, and how I could publicise my book, both before and after publication. I emerged blinking into the daylight an hour later with my head spinning with ISBN numbers and Twitter feeds, pre-publication offers and ebooks, unit costs and press releases – a little daunted, it’s true, but mainly excited at the prospect of not only doing it myself, but being in control of the process.

Monday, 13 July 2009

The story so far

Nearly 10 years ago now, I finished my first novel, Grown-Up People. I found an agent to represent me, but despite some near misses, she didn’t succeed in finding a publisher who was prepared to publish my masterpiece. So I decided to do it myself.

I did so with the help of Xlibris, an American company who may well have been the first to offer a print-on-demand service, and were certainly the first I’d come across. I had a good experience with them, though with a couple of reservations.

One was that, having ticked the box on the application form that said ‘design a cover for me’ (or words to that effect), I ended up with a clumsy combination of abstract shapes and old-fashioned typefaces that I could probably have managed myself, given access to a computer with Adobe Photoshop and a half-hour tutorial.

The other reservation (and something that’s not their fault at all) stemmed from the fact that, since Xlibris is an American company, they print copies in the US and ship them to wherever the buyer lives. Most of my potential buyers were in the UK, and whether they bought the book directly from Xlibris or via Amazon, the additional shipping costs hiked the price of the book to around £20 a copy. Not ideal. I eventually got around this by buying ‘author copies’ in bulk, giving me a discount which allowed me to sell the book at £8 and break even, but it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory solution.

Fast forward to 2009. In the interim I’ve completed a second novel, and indeed a third, neither of which my original agent felt enthusiastic enough about to hawk around the literary world. I’ve even started no. 4, but I’m still keen to publish no. 2, which, I believe (in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary) is significantly better than Grown-Up People.

So this will be a weblog in the original sense of the word: an online diary that will track the (self-) publishing process, from soup to nuts (and whatever comes after that).

Oh, and the title of the novel? It’s the same as the title of this blog: First Time I Met The Blues. More of that in due course.