Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas card 2009

A very satisfying process, printing this year's card:

Firstly, it's a team effort. S's idea, B found the pinecone on hols in France and did the writing, which I traced onto the lino. H did nothing, the slacker.

Secondly, I learned something really important about lino printing: the reason I have been getting, literally, patchy results to date, with more mottled ink application than I'd have liked, is not because of this:

or this:

it's because I don't got one of these:

and instead rely on rather cruder means, such as:

and, this time, one of these ugly brutes:

But all done now, and happy with it. Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Two stories which have amused me in the last few days:

My sister was picking up her six year old at school and happened to notice the new Ben 10 'Omnitrix' watch her classmate Max was wearing. "Nice Omnitrix, Max!" said V, all friendly and mum-like. "Thanks!" said Max, and, realising it was polite to reciprocate the complament, briefly looked her up and down, scanning for an appropriate subject. "Nice ... boobies." he settled on, and turned back to his game.

Our friend M was off work looking after his daughter when his phone accidentally called work from his pocket. His PA did the decent thing and put the call on speaker when she realised that this was the boss reading his daughter, of all things, That's Not My Fairy.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Back of the Book

Here's a blog post about blurb I done did on the Hodder site:

What happens the instant after you flip a book over might make the difference between bestseller and remainder.


When you turn over a book, it's like clicking on a link, or raising your eyebrows and tilting your head in a conversation. It says "tell me more".

Quite often we, as publishers, bugger up this priceless invitation with a blurb that tells you all the wrong stuff, or simply tells you too much.

Research, consultants, and common sense tell us two things about blurbs:

#1: The punters neither want nor need a full synopsis.

#2: They think we sorted out all those lovey "A Masterpiece" quotes from other famous authors over drinks at The Groucho.

So what should we put on the back of a book? Here's a blurb I think works really well:

and it was a monster bestseller, sans prizes or Richard & Judy.

I think it works because:

It addresses you directly, and in an arrestingly unusual way: "HERE IS A SMALL FACT: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE".

It doesn't tell you more of the story than you need (though it does fall back on that overused 'The year. The place' thing).

It's suggestive rather than explanatory. How could your curiosity not be piqued by "and quite a lot of thievery"?

So why aren't more blurbs like that and less like dull synopses and tiresome hype?

A chap called Damian Horner (more on him later) has some good opinions on this, but my list would go:

1) Low status of blurb. There are some notable exceptions, but in most publishers it’s written by quite junior staff, like Editorial Assistants. Nothing wrong with that in itself – they're smart and they know the books – but it's an indication that the enterprise as a whole doesn't value it as highly as, say, the front cover. We can tell that the cover art is important because it is afforded the ultimate accolade of a Punch’n'Judy set-to (aka The Cover Meeting) between the most senior members of staff every week, in every publisher.

2) Publishing processes. You write the Advance Information sheet, you adapt it for the catalogue, which becomes the hardback copy, which becomes the paperback copy. Surprise, surprise, it ain't reading very fresh any more. Hard to manage freshness when you're only ever 10 minutes from the next deadline.

3) Lack of evidence. We don't, as an industry, spend that much on research, and what we do spend probably isn't too closely focussed on the role of copy. It happens, but it's not exactly common. So we don't know enough about what works.

But back to the good examples. My colleagues at Sceptre scored a big hit with this one:

When I first saw it my immediate reaction was "Arg! Can't do that!" I had a right old cringe at the notion of "we", The Publisher, addressing the reader. 300,000 sales later ... I might have revised my stance a tad.

So why does it work? It goes further than The Book Thief by making a virtue of denying you information (though the information you do get is very well judged). It, too, is arrestingly direct: "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book". It makes an unusual request of you: "please don't tell".

It was written before my time here in a very intense and thoughtful process led by Damian Horner, our marketing consultant. Now if you read 'marketing consultant' and think bad thoughts (I've been told that some people don't think us Marketing Professionals are the salt of the earth) please consider that his job here is nothing more sinister than helping us persuade people to buy books we love.

What's next? How to repeat the trick? Probably not by repeating it, for a kickoff ("We don't want to tell you what happens in ... THIS book either!!"). We have been working on an interesting new wheeze, though. It’s about getting fresh ideas from writers outside the industry. Watch this space

Monday, 21 September 2009


Had a work do yesterday. On a Sunday. But it turned out nice. It was the gala dinner for the Independent Booksellers conference, at Warwick University.

Gyles Brandreth was the star turn. He spoke stirringly about the value of ... independent booksellers, funnily enough, and told a few tales from his diaries, published by us and entitled Something Sensational to Read on the Train.

He described a lovely episode when he was on Lord Longford's Pornography Commission, along with an Archbishop, two judges, a Rabbi and Cliff Richard. Lord L gets out two carrier bags of utterly filthy stuff and "We spent an hour or two going through it. We'd flick through the pages going tut tut tut ... oh look, Rabbi - here's one of yours..."

And he apparently overheard Prince Philip saying to the Queen in the royal box of the variety show: "Oh look, Cabbage, they're doing something called The Full Monty. That'll be some sort of tribute to El Alamein. Marvellous".

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Coolest Canned Fish Shop In France

Plenty of highlights to pick out from our trip to the island of Noirmoutier, off the Loire Atlantique coast (no, I'd never heard of it either): bike & chariot trips with the kids to buy bread, swimming in the sea, eating camp-cooked moules ... but naturally the thing I was most excited about was discovering a great canned fish shop.

It's not that I'm even that into canned fish, but ... it just looked so good. Shelf upon shelf of gaudy, perky, colourful, traditional ahm cans of fish. What's not to like? There's something about attractive, yet basic objects displayed in volume that gives them an exuberant charm. Either that or I'm a wannabe graphic designer and twat.

Judge for yourself. How cool is this shop?


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

One For All, etc

In the journal of the marketing industry, Marketing (see what they did there) the usual way to refer to someone in the trade is as a "marketer". So why, in publishing, are they (and indeed we) generally called "marketeers", to rhyme with "musketeers", for god's sake?

Since this convention is followed as much by editors, publicists etc as the people themselves, you have to assume it's how the industry wants to style them.

But what does that say about the industry? "We'd prefer it if your specialism sounded more glamorous and dynamic, in a fun, historical way, you know, musketeers, privateers ... marketeers!"

Well I think it's silly.

And while I'm on the subject of job titles etc, what do you call the work experience people? Obviously by their name if you're addressing them directly and you've taken the trouble to write it down, to compensate for your unforgivable crapness with names. But in the abstract, or collectively?

1) "Workie" - all wrong. Temptingly quick, but just far too disrespectful. Like squaddie, but without the connotations of hardness.

2) "The Work Experience" - also wrong. Like "The YTS" it's impersonal and dismissive.

3) "The Workexperiencista" - alright it's silly, but I've used it a few times in emails. Perhaps I'm trying to add glamour (see above) for comedy purposes, but it also reveals a revolutionary mindset they're probably all prone to as they staple the thousandth document, but rarely express.

4) "Intern" - don't really know what the difference is, so perhaps that's the way to go now we're over our Lewinski sniggering (we are, aren't we? nearly?)

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

While cycling through the park...

... saw a tiny toddler straying towards the road, only to be restrained by his mum. Then his sister, a year older or so, busied up round the side to clasp her arms around him, solemnly protecting him from danger. It was her job. Love that.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Lino Beauty

I've been making lino prints sporadically over the last two or three years.

I was initially inspired by Will Webb, the Art Director of Bloomsbury, now freelance. Ironic, because we'd had the odd disagreement about use of lino cuts on covers while both at Bloomers, but you can put that down to me being a philistine unit-shifter I suppose. He's produced some incredibly beautiful prints, ranging from the bold and energetic to the elegant and precise.
Lino printing works for me because it's a blend of art and craft. Frankly I don't have the necessary imagination or technique to just paint a blank canvas. Pure art isn't my thing. With hand printing you have creativity teamed with method. Or, looked at from the other end, it's graphic design but handmade.

I've read about "flow state" before. Without, naturally, bothering my arse to find out for sure, I think I'm right in saying it's defined as absorption in a task that requires concentration but not thought. It's a condition of restful, satisfying work. And that's roughly how I feel about doing lino prints.

Without making a laborious how-to out of this (done that already with the shield post - see below) it's a process of gouging bits out of a lino surface, then applying ink to what's left and pressing paper on it - a very basic relief print.

Here's a few, in order:

This is probably the sort of print everyone needs to get out of their system. I hadn't quite got my head around the medium. Making thin lines by gouging either side of them works up to a point, but doesn't really have much impact because there's no nice surfaces of colour or texture. As my Dad helpfully pointed out, the lino itself looked more interesting than the print. Cheers.

It depicts the moment when B and I were squirted by the Sultan's Elephant.

This one I love. I based it on a sketch of the back of Billy's head (I know my limits - likeness of a hairdo is just about within them. A face... not so much). The lettering is clearly ripped off from that Jonathan Safran Foer cover and any number of other wonderful hand lettered book covers.

I like it because it's spontaneous and graphic.

Christmas card for '07 is an effort at something a bit more precise. It's our front door, with a purple wreath (why purple? I don't know) rather badly overprinted.

Having hardly tried multiple colours, but being encouraged by Will to do so, I bit off rather more than I could chew with this card for my Sister in Law's birthday, depicting the view from their family house in Rockcliffe. The picture works, but the colours are a bit poorly chosen, I think. Not one of my strengths.

Christmas card '08 is an attempt at a reduction print. You print a larger image then gouge away more material so you can then overprint highlights or details. Quite happy with the reindeer, but the sky is scrappy.

So there we are. More to follow I hope...

Thursday, 25 June 2009


Flushed by two recent consumer-action successes, which led Mrs Blackpool Tower to call me "The Male Esther Rantzen" (she meant it as a compliment), I humbly submit my...

Top Tips for Complainin'

* Don't be an arsehole. They're human too. Cliched but true.

* Be Honest. It's a tiresome old process, so you need a bit of righteous indignation to sustain you. That won't be possible if your indignation is fake. Consumer Action for Fun and Profit isn't my idea of a good time, which is why I only make a fuss if I feel genuinely aggrieved.

* Have an Objective. An aimless rant only gets you so far, but if you have firmly in mind what you think is appropriate redress, you'll be far likelier to get it.

* Be Professional. If your complaint becomes a row, you've probably fucked it up. The more emotional you get, the easier it is to dismiss you as a nutter. Taking it personally makes it impossible to objectify the situation (see below). 

* Write stuff down. Have specifics. A printed document laying out your experience of the company will scare the crap out of most employees, because they can imagine it in the hands of their boss.

* Make your complaint about you, not about them. It's not a personal attack. The last thing you want to do is make them defensive and embattled. Remember you're trying to move them towards giving you what you want. Keep your language un-aggressive, and focus mainly on how you feel. If your whole argument rests on "you did this, then he said that, really rudely, yeah?" all you'll get is a debate about who said what. Remember that you're a valued customer and tell them how you're feeling: "I was told that it wouldn't be delivered on time, which made me feel frustrated and angry, and not like you wanted my business". Hard to refute, and all about your status as a customer.

* Talk about recommendation. Remind them that you're one customer but can deliver others

* Make it easy for them. Invite them to take the opportunity to turn you back into a happy customer and advocate.

* Use their vocabulary. If their website says something like "Hey guys, talk to us! We want to know what you think" then tell them, and remind them that they asked in the first place.

* Be a good winner. Say thanks when you win.

There. Easy.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

How to Make a Roman Shield for a Six Year Old

This may turn out to be one of those gift projects that's more fun for the maker than the recipient, but young L likes his Romans, so I decided he needed a shield for his sixth birthday (now weeks past, natch). Here's how it works:

1. Buy two sheets of hardboard. I got 4mm thickness, but thinner would be better. B&Q sawed mine to size, which was v.handy. Get one sheet cut slightly narrower than the other: 900mm x 400mm and 900mm x 395mm. Give all the edges a quick sand. Don't need to round them off, just make sure they're not too sharp and, you know, edgy.

2. Prop the edges of the wider sheet on something 40mm high, shiny side down. I used books, but ideally you'd want a couple of long chunks of wood or something. Spread lots of PVA wood glue on, and put the narrower sheet on the top, making sure it's centred.
Weigh the board down the middle, so it bows downwards and just touches down on the surface beneath. I used heavy dumbells - you need a lot of weight. Leave overnight.

3. Take your now curved board (we'll call it a shield from now on, I think), marvel at how the edges of the two layers just about match, due to pi and that. Sand off the excess glue and ram a bit of pollyfilla in anywhere there's a gap between the layers. Sand off when dry to leave a nice smooth finish.

4. Apply primer to the edges of the shield and the front. Bit tricky to mask the back, because of the rough texture, but worth a go so you don't get messy edges.

5. Drill holes for the bolts which will secure the handles. I used M6 x 12mm Homebase Roofing Bolts, and a 6mm drill bit. Where to put the holes depends a bit on the nipper in question, but about 20mm down from the top edge is about right for the top one.

Try to drill in towards the centre of the curve, so the hole is perpendicular to the surface. You can do fancy stuff with a spirit level if you want, to make it more accurate.

6. First coat of paint is yellow. This is actually the detail, rather than the background, but the background's red and that's a stronger colour, so hard to paint over. Bung on bright yellow gloss, edges first, then the rest.

7. Then you have to apply masking, to protect your details while you paint the red 'background' on. I used Frisket, which has a backing, so is great for drawing on in pencil, cutting with scalpel and repositioning once on... but is mainly for masking airbrush jobs and turns out to suck big time when it comes to being daubed with brushfulls of gloss. Lesson learned: masking tape next time.

8. Slap on your gloss red over the masking. Leave to dry.

9. Handles go on next. I got a belt from a charity shop and cut lengths from it. About 25cm for the larger handle (a looser strap, to put your forearm through), slightly shorter for the other one, held in the hand. Drill or somehow gouge holes in the belt where the bolts are going to go. Put in your bolts. Round bit on the front, nut on the back. Use a washer to spread the pressure of the nut on the strap.

Fill the Xs on the bolts with polyfilla, and paint some primer on them when dry.

10. Paint the bolts and retouch the other details.

11. Apply a coat of clear gloss varnish.

12. Wrap, present to child, beam with pride, set about child with improvised weapons such as wooden spoons and frozen peas to demonstrate efficacy against swords, hails of arrows etc.