Monday, 29 November 2010

Sugru Style

Some clever person once reviewed The Big Lebowski saying "In an ideal world, all films would be made by the Cohen Brothers". The same might be true of all new companies and Jane NĂ­ Dhulchaointigh.

Jane is the inventor and founder of Sugru.

I got in touch with her because I was impressed by the clarity of her website, and I felt her approach might contain lessons for our authors. transmits a strong personality and sense of purpose which magnetically compels you to join in.

We met, at Jane's suggestion, at Look Mum, No Hands in Clerkenwell - a cyclists' cafe (sensible idea). Jane was charming and inspiring. These are my notes from our conversation:

1) She took a while to get her head around blogging, but managed it by studying other peoples' blogs, discovering which ones she naturally gravitated to and admired, then emulating them.

2) ... but she still feels self conscious about blogging, talking about herself, her product. Her solution is to celebrate the work of others, and their great ideas. That way she's promoting Sugru by oblique means.

3) She has no interest in converting unbelievers. Rather, she spends her time interacting with enthusiasts, rewarding their involvement, and in the process making them even more likely to be Sugru advocates. A very natural and organic process.

4) It's imperative to establish the context for the product, and tell its story. You can't just have it sitting on a shelf (unless the shelf is wonky and had been hacked better, arf). Ideally, you have it introduced to you by a user, a believer.

5) She's focused on reaching out to pockets of enthusiasts, and going where like minded people and a sympathetic attitude exist: so not B&Q, but bike specialists, design specialists etc.

6) I think it's sort of conceptually pleasing that the user-empowering, hands-on nature of the product is mirrored in the the user-generated nature of the online community.

So there you go. Buy some! And see if you can beat my cable tidies.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Percy Road Book Group, Southampton

For a work project, I visited my sister's book group in Southampton, having given them copies of one of our books in advance. Never got round to using it at work, so here's the discussion:

The Book:

The Chapel at the Edge of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

A moving story of Italian childhood sweethearts separated by war. Emilio is a POW in the Orkneys, Rosa remains in Lake Como. He builds a makeshift chapel (true story), she joins the resistance.

Who's who?

Michelle (our host) - favourite book: The Five People You Meet In Heaven
Chris - favourite book: Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Angela - Jonathan Livingstone Seagull
Vic - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
Brendan - The Kite Runner
Me - The Name of the Rose (this week)

What did they like?

Plenty, thank God. The nightmare scenario of nervous silence thankfully didn't materialise. Here's a few likes: "The small, intimate cast of characters"; "the fast moving narrative; the story alternates between settings in small chunks, with lots of dialogue"; "really distinct styles to the two threads of the story; a pacier narrative in the Rosa bits"; "reminds you of the courage of resistance fighters"; "the strong theme of perseverance"; "the absorbing atmosphere".

Chris and Vic both re-started the book as soon as they'd finished it, to read again the bit at the beginning (which is actually the end of the story). Like The Kite Runner, you're uncertain what's happening at the start, until the story unfolds...

Like most people in publishing, I sometimes forget that not everyone likes reading. Michelle told us she'd struggled to get her colleague excited about this book, but then remembered he'd only ever read one book - a Mario Puzo novel badly finished by his wife when he died - and was so cross he never read another.

What did they not like?

Some of the group felt that the book didn't end quite as strongly as it had started. Others wanted the story to be bigger, and escape the episodic narrative. Angela didn't feel the relationship between Emilio and Bertoldo was very clear; their attitudes to one another seemed to shift in inexplicable ways.

The Chapel

Every book group needs a research fiend, and Michelle was that lady, finding pictures on the net of the actual chapel on Lambholm.

It turns out to be bigger and more impressive than people had imagined. Interesting question: is it better to see that before you read the book, or would that inhibit your imagination?

Chris observed that the chapel was a brilliant device for writing about people; each character projected their own needs and hopes onto it. It provides a release for some, a distraction for others.

The Characters

Bertoldo was considered fascinating and surprising; where did he find the courage to attempt an escape?

Rosa was the most controversial. To some she was gutsy, confused, changed by the war (whereas Emilio 'came back the same person'). To others she was deceptive. Was she engaged in resistance work as a distraction, as Emilio was with the chapel?

Emilio: he coped by
not yearning.

Their Best Book for Discussion, Ever?

This lot, like many reading groups, often have good discussions about bad books. They named The Mermaid and the Drunks and The Death of Mr Love.

'Best book' votes went to Germinal, The Bone Setter's Daughter, and English Passengers. They love a book offering an escape to a historical reality.

Why a book group?

So you can discuss books at length without boring loved ones! And you find yourself reading books you'd never have normally picked up.

How do they decide on the next book?

They take turns. No messing. And they use a list from the excellent Southampton Central library for inspiration, and usually source the books from them. And compete in their vicious Christmas Quiz...

Do they use reading notes or similar?

They sometimes use questions from the back of books, and often research on the web. is approved of.

Catering Report:

Outstanding biscuits including those nice little oblong Jaffa Cakes, already well known to your correspondent. Red wine (likewise).

Next Time?

Restless by William Boyd. Never heard of him.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Baby Cheeses

Last year my Mum asked me to make her some Christmas cards. I couldn't manage it because the damned things took so long to do and I was running out of time on our one (partly due to the amount of random tools I was using for the pressing).

Since then, Mum's generously given me a lovely screw-down press, making the whole thing much easier. So when she asked about making a card this year, naturally I said yes.

Mum's considerably less heathen than me, and wanted a nativity scene for her card, a bit like the one on the card in the picture below.

Step one was sketching a design. I tried out a star in the sky and a roof reminiscent of Mum's own crib which I remember fondly from our childhood. Client said no - just the Holy Family please. Baby Jesus (or Baby Cheeses as a young relative used to pronounce it) does, however, look like the crib version, so my sentimental reference is at least intact.

Step two, once the design sketch was finished, was to transfer it by primary school tracing paper rubbing, onto my lino.

Step three, cut out the design with lino gouges. Step four, ink 'em up and print with the press.


I'm giving them to Mum on Sunday, so I hope she likes.

And I'll be listing a few spare ones on Etsy soon ..

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Lino Printing For Fun and Profit

I decided to list some lino print cards on Etsy, that rather fine site for selling stuff what you made yourself.

It's not really about the money (common fib, I know, but what I mean is that it's not really worth the money, given how long the printing takes). What I'm interested in is the process. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how authors promote themselves online, and this is my way of creating a parallel challenge for myself. And if I can combine two so-called skills of mine - print making and marketing - then I'll be rather pleased.

Anyway, having listed m'pinecone card, and a rather nice lady having bought one ... I now have to print the bugger.

Here's how it's going:

All the stuff, including rolled-out ink, lovely roller, board for keeping the lino in place (for fiddly registration purposes) etc.

Two bits of lino, one for the highlight colour, the other one for the rest (not printing the 'Christmas '09' bit this time round, for obvious reasons).

Nice new press, clamped to a bit of kitchen.

Highlights printed and drying.

- Update - All finished now:

All ready to send one out into the world. Exciting!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

What I Want From An Ebook - Part II

Since I posted that, the excellent James Bridle has launched a campaign called Open Bookmarks, whose aim is to enable sharing of reader comments across reader devices. And he sets that aspiration in a very interesting historical and literary context. Read all about it here and also see the interesting comments below, in which James describes what he wants, and I would entirely second this, as "selfish socialising" ie control over who reads your annotations.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

What I Want From an Ebook

I've tried three different types of ebook now: plain and simple on a sony eReader, an Enhanced Edition on an iPhone, and a standard ebook on the iPad.

I liked them all. Like many, I discovered that a Sony eReader isn't quite as perfect for holidays as you might hope: sunlight and screens don't mix, and you don't really want to leave it by the pool. But in general it's handy and doesn't get in the way of the reading experience. I read David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on an eReader (on holiday), and it blew my mind.

Mind you, if I compare the experience of reading the Mitchell with that of the equally extraordinary Wolf Hall, there is just a tiny bit of extra satisfaction I gained from owning a physical copy of the latter. I liked the fact that it sat there waiting temptingly on the shelf in between reads. And I like that the object changed as I read the text within it. I now have a warped, creased and generally softened up paperback, containing a wad of paper - my bookmark - covered in notes and tucked inside. It remains on the shelf, unmistakably my cherished, pored-over book.

The Enhanced Edition of Bunny Munroe for the iPhone is terrific. Not so much for the extras, but for the basics. I didn't feel any need to watch the video of the author reading his book (very well produced, but just too reminiscent of Jim Morrison poetry scenes in the Doors movie), though I did think the synchronised audio was well done. What was most impressive was just how well the book read on a small screen, due to proper care and attention being paid to the formatting of the text.

When I came to read a book on the iPad, I spent a bit more time exploring the intuitive way you can highlight a bit of text, or just a word, and tag it with a typed note. Barely more effort than my scribbles on a bookmark, and probably more durable.

What I really want (to arrive, at last, at my point) is to be able to share such notes.

The main purpose of scribbling down stuff about Wolf Hall was to highlight things for discussion in my book club. I love my book club. We almost always have good discussions, but sometimes a tiny detail of prose style seems too small to raise in the discussion, or awkward, if it would require people to check back to a page reference. Or sometimes I just forget to mention things. What I want from an ebook is the ability to invite all twelve of my book group members, and a selection of friends and family whose opinions I find interesting, to see my annotations, and for me to be able to see theirs.

I think this would affect the reading experience quite profoundly, and almost certainly positively. It would be a genuinely social, collaborative experience, but one you control yourself. You can always ignore friends' notes, or read them later.

Two examples encourage me to think it would work. Firstly Apt's Golden Notebooks experiment; a close reading exercise where, theoretically, anyone could annotate the online text (in practice the academics leading it were too damn clever, and put normal people off). Apt is Peter Collingridge, the same chap who makes Enhanced Editions, so it's equally elegant.

Secondly, reading a draft of Chris Cleave's new book with his editor's comments in the margin (annotated in the Word doc) was fascinating. Partly because, as unfinished work, it gave an insight into the editorial conversation, but mostly because it was just fascinating to see where I agreed or disagreed with Chris' editor simply as a fellow reader.

Anyway, it all seems very doable from a technological point of view, unless I've missed the point massively. is anyone doing it?

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Referrals in Cricket

... and this is me in cricket nerd mode.

If it becomes standard practice to have referrals in Test cricket, which I hope it doesn't, because it slows the game down and robs us of the pure exhilaration of a wicket falling, I can see a couple of interesting consequences arising:

Umpires will be judged on how often their decisions are referred and, crucially, their "turnover rate", which could prove rather a stark assessment of their quality.

Bowlers too will eventually build up a record in this area. Will it demonstrate how respected a bowler is by his captain? If Jimmy Anderson gets more decisions referred over time than Stuart Broad, surely that implies something about Andrew Strauss' opinion of his judgement?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Does Your Favourite Non Fiction Top Ten Say More About You Than Your Favourite Novels?

I'm not sure, but it always seems more interesting to discuss somehow. Here's me:*

Watching the English
The Right Stuff
Kitchen Confidential
Adventures in the Screen Trade
Revolution in the Head
Down and Out in Paris and London
How Not To Write a Novel
As If
Touching the Void

*Subject to incessant change, natch

Sod it, I forgot David Sedaris, and The Consolations of Philosophy

Nov 2012 sod it also forgot The Art of Captaincy, Gideon Haigh's Ashes 2005 and Penguins Stopped Play.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Wisdom of Crowds

B and I went to The Oval for Surrey v Somerset today. Having endured the nerdishness of the upper tier of the pavilion for a while (members swapping signed postcards of the players, I ask you) we decamped to the Family Area.

We witnessed the crowd at its best: cheering 19 year old Jason Roy to the ... erm, rafters (girders?). He'd been fielding on the boundary and making friends. Autographs, waves etc. Next stop: folk hero for an afternoon and his every run applauded. Marvelous.

And then the crowd at its worst: Poor old Jos Butler fielding for Somerset, went for a catch on the boundary to dismiss a Surrey player, stepped over the rope, but not before he tossed the ball back infield, where he collected it and threw it back to the keeper. The crowd wanted it to be a six. They jeered at him for being a cheat. The kids seeking his autograph called him a cheat. Horrible. Mind you, the fifteen year olds behind us were splendid: "I hate it when kids think it's ok to slag players" said one. Good on him.

In between times we'd been allowed on the outfield, which I hadn't done since about 2000 I think. I found it rather moving to take B up to see where the bowlers ran in, and look up at where we'd been watching from the pavilion, where KP hooked Lee in '05... I won't go on, but it were great.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Du, du, dugadugadugadah

There was a lovely moment in the Divine Comedy gig last night at Somerset House. Neil Hannon was playing At The Indie Disco at the piano and slowed it right down for the lyric 'She makes my heart beat the same way/as at the start of Blue Monday', and asked the crowd if he should give it a try. 'Yes!' we said, 'give it a try!'. So he started drumming the intro to Blue Monday on his mic. Du, du, dugadugadugadah and accompanied himself on sung bass part. And he nailed it! And then played an MGMT cover. Clever fellow.

Tonight We Fly was amazing too.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Power of Blurb

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at the Bookseller Cover Conference 2010. Comments on the conference can be found using #coverconf on Twitter.

It's rather long (a twenty minute presentation).

I'll start with a disclaimer. I'm not an expert. I'm not a trained copywriter. At Hodder I comment on copy and I contribute to it, and I'm very interested in the way it works and the value it has, but I don't actually write it for a living, because it's just too bloody hard.

I'm going to try to show that:

  • Copy sells books
  • Publishers neglect copy
  • ...except when they don't
  • We can do it better

Copy Sells Books

The words on the back of a book, or on the flaps, or in the online product description, affect how the book sells. The words are commercially valuable.

What's my evidence for that?

The fine people at BML do surveys of book buying habits, and one of those surveys asked 'what makes you buy a particular book?'

The results, incidentally, created some gloom among marketing departments because 'advertising' as an answer, was so infrequent as to be statistically irrelevant.

No one will be surprised to see 'Author I like' and 'Friends/family recommended' so high, but copy features very very strongly. It's a vital motivating factor in why people choose a particular book. And, unlike most of the other factors, it's totally within our control as publishers.

On a more anecdotal, qualitative level, the BML BookZone panel of readers were given a collection of blurbs to read and vote on, for the BMS Best Blurb Award. The responses don't exactly put a pound value on the copy, but they do show how real people react to copy.

Here's just a few, and there were dozens more where this last one came from; people saying 'I want to read this'. 'I'm going to go and buy this'.

From our own experience we know that browsers in a bookshop pick up books, and turn them over. I've tried really hard not to look like a freak standing in Waterstone's Kings Road with a notepad, but I probably did and my finding was that browsers turned over about two thirds of the paperbacks they picked up, and spent on average four seconds looking at the back. Which is a little frightening, but I suppose it's better than nothing.

The online equivalent of this is that we scroll down from the cover to the product description, before going on to the quotes.

So, to recap: browsers read the copy, and it influences what they buy.

Publishers Neglect Copy

So if we accept that copy is commercially valuable, do we as publishers give it the priority it deserves? I would contend that we don't. To demonstrate that, I'm going to contrast the priority given to copy in publishers with the priority given to cover design.

In every publishing company there are rows in the cover meeting.

This is a GOOD THING. Of course we row about covers. Because they're so important. It's axiomatic for publishers that covers sell books. In every company a given cover will be worked on, circulated, discussed, rowed about, revised, rowed about some more, sometimes researched, sometimes outsourced at the cost of thousands, scrapped, rowed about some more and finally signed off. Then the MD gets hold of it, rejects it, and the whole damn thing starts all over again.

Contrast that process with what I found out when I emailed a number of contacts in other publishers to ask about how copy was treated. These were editors, marketers, sales people.

I asked: 'how often is copy discussed in meetings at your firm?'

'In cover meetings, but only if it is too long or badly laid-out rather than because it is crap


'Very rarely'

'Not that often exclusively, massive discussion about cover/package/overall tone though'

'Each piece of copy is discussed once at the copy meeting.'

'This is taking up much more of our thinking time on pbs these days. We meet weekly to discuss our plans for pbs and blurb is regularly on the agenda.'

'Only front cover stuff, not the actual blurb'

'I discussed blurbs a lot. This was not necessarily popular or viewed as 'normal'.'

No one I asked had ever done any market research on a blurb. Few could name their most effective blurb, or anyone else's

It's a pretty clear picture. Little time is spent discussing, debating, perfecting the copy. Senior people are spending their time on other priorities. A notable exception here is Penguin, who very sensibly have copywriters to work on their paperback editions. Elsewhere, copy is the ginger stepchild of the publishing family (I'm allowed to say that: I have some red in my hair).

At this point I should say that what I'm not doing is saying no one puts any effort in. The issue of who actually writes the copy is one we'll return to, but in most cases it is slaved over by someone and they give it their best shot. But then it's generally left as it is.

One significant exception to this is shoutlines, which rightly do get agonised over. But if you think that a shoutline is important and the back cover copy is not, then you're essentially denying the reality that readers routinely turn books over before they decide to buy.

One other small point about the contrast with cover processes before we move on: finishes. The time, effort and strife that goes into foil, matt lam and embossing in publishing meetings. Think about how many books get sold online nowadays, where all those finishes count for nothing. But the copy remains.

Publishers neglect copy, but it's obvious from other industries that we're missing a trick. It's almost too obvious to point out that the advertising industry has been selling products with words for decades and the balance between art and copy is built into the very structure of their creative operations..

In terms of packaging of other products, we've all seen what Innocent drinks have done with a fresh brand voice. Some people hate the words on their smoothies, but the sales speak for themselves.

Which means we can afford to be positive about all this. We have an opportunity to, dare I say it, add value. And not just in the sense of publishers competing with one another. If the industry as a whole communicates more engagingly about its books, we will compete better with all the other new forms of handheld entertainment busily scaring the crap out of us.

Publishers Neglect Copy ... Except When They Don't

So how much better could our copy be? I think we can say that there are some examples of copy which has significantly contributed to the success of books and they show the standard we ought to hit more often.

We're pretty sure that the copy sells The Other Hand to readers, as suggested both by the overwhelming success in the BookZone research into the most tempting copy and also anecdotal evidence. I've been to two book groups at which people have said 'I read the back and I just had to buy it'. And it was the first book mentioned when I asked staff at Waterstone's Kings' Road for an example of a selling blurb.

Why does it work? Two reasons: content and tone. In terms of content ... there ain't none. It plays the denial card: you're curious about what's in the book ... and you're going to stay curious, because we're not going to tell you. That's genuinely surprising, and because it's cleverly done it's actually intriguing, rather than just annoying. There are a few facts, but hardly any.

Tonally it's really shocking. It addresses you directly. The publisher, not the author or the character, the publisher, is addressing you, and it is asking you to BUY the book. What could be less appropriate? The cheek of it! Most puslishers wince when they read it. I did too. It breaks one of our biggest taboos. 400k sales on, I'm not wincing any more.

It represents a very bold new view of how much plot needs to go in, and actively seeks to unsettle the reader, who has, thanks to publishers, generally very conservative expectations of a blurb.

A footnote to that is that the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas did a very similar thing. I'm assured by colleagues at Hodder that they were unaware of this when doing The Other Hand, as was Damian I expect. But still, they've sold 1.3m books between them, I think the inference is fairly clear.

Next example is The Book Thief:

Less radical than The Other Hand, but very effective. It addresses you directly and it arouses your curiosity.

It has to be said it also contains one of my least favourite blurb devices: the time. The place. Nothing intrinsicly wrong with it but it's so overused as to be well worth avoiding now.

An interesting point here is how the copy is designed. This wouldn't work as a simple paragraph. Someone at Transworld has really thought through how this will work visually on a paperback. It's two voices, one from the book and one outside the book as it were. This has sold well over half a million. The crazy kids at don't agree. they think it's crap layout. I believe they are wrong.

Which brings us on to another example, from the first Twilight book

This was nominated by someone a contact at Little, Brown who says it's the best blurb they've done. And the bit he thinks is good is the first bit: simply an extract from the book. I agree it works brilliantly. The rest, as my contact says, is 'totally unnecessary'.

We quite often resort to using extracts from books when we're blurbing, and quite right too in my opinion. As I said, we will return to whose job it is to write the blurb, and I'll suggest that getting the author to do it is rarely a winning method, but using a carefully selected bit of their own prose to set the scene and arouse curiosity is a great option. You can't really force it, of course, the writing either lends itself to being extracted, or it doesn't.

I was very impressed with what Fourth Estate did with the paperback of Wolf Hall.

Minna Fry, never shy of a bit of market segmentation, had two copy approaches done for the two different covers. The white is for women unscared by literaryness the black is more male; for a more thriller-loving reader, possibly put off by prizes. I love the idea. I'm not sure the distinction is quite as clear as it might be in the copy, but you can see what they're trying to do: The Booker Prize reference is moved to the back on the black edition, for instance.

Both versions use copy and quotes to build on the overall proposition of the book: "Tudors". The copy's all about scale, drama, excitement, pace. It could have said 'at times laugh out loud funny' or 'exquisite prose which is a joy to read slowly and absorb' or 'manipulates second person narrative in an original and captivating way'. But they didn't. All of those things are true, but they are not the point Fourth Estate are trying to make.

I said I'd return to the issue of quote selection, and it's mainly to say that I'm not going to say that much about it - like shoutlines, quotes do get lots of attention, and have actually been the subject of a bit of market research; most big companies have probably replicated the research that tells them the same three things: readers are confused by quotes for the author's previous books, readers give credance to quotes from 'the right newspapers' and readers think all quotes from fellow authors are stitch-ups.

So I'm not going to dwell on quotes, beyond saying that they seem to work best when they, like the blurb, are pointed at a particular target. The quotes for Wolf Hall are buttressing the central message: 'don't be scared, it's a Tudor pageturner!'

I'm not suggesting, of course, that we should all start doing the same thing; addressing the reader directly, or just using extracts, or creating dual blurbs: that would be missing the point. The point is that we need to decide what effect we're trying to have on the reader, and go all out to create it. No one will arrest us if we don't represent the whole book accurately on the cover. And frankly no one will know if we do, because they'll have been too bored to have read the whole blurb.

Are we trying to arrouse curiosity?

Are we suggesting the conversations this book will inspire you to have?

Are we hinting that it's not a disimilar read to another, bestselling author?

Are we simply reassuring the reader that this is more of the same from their favourite author?

Every blurb performs a function. If you try to make it perform lots, then good luck. You're probably stuffed.

We Can Do Better

So if we accept that copy is valuable, and neglected, but possible to do brilliantly, how do we as publishers go about doing it brilliantly more often?

I would suggest that it's all about internal working methods. (Sorry if that sounds dull!)

Fact is, It's a right old can of worms. The status quo at most publishers seems to be:

The editor, or editorial assistant, writes copy for the AI sheet. They work hard at it, they're being bothered by the gits like me in Sales and marketing to get something on there, they get it done. It's fine. It goes online and already IS the copy to anyone browsing on Amazon. They adapt it for the catalogue, and before you know it they need to adapt it for the hardback too. In due course they're required to shorten it and bung on some quotes for the paperback.

All of this is well and skillfully done, again, I'm not having a pop at editors, god forbid. But it's typically done under a fair bit of time pressure, and tends to become self-repeating. You set the approach very early and it often stays set.

Why is it the editor? One reason: they've read the book. The gits in sales and marketing haven't. Usually.

Marketing sage Damian Horner believes that marketing people should do blurb. Not because marketing rule and everyone else sucks, but because their job is communicating persuasively about the books.

Practically, that's really hard to do. The poor folks in Marketing would have to read every book practically at the moment of acquisition, and there generally aren't enough of them. I think the only place this actually happens is at Penguin, where it's a copywriting team rather than Marketing, but along the same lines.

A senior colleague at Little, Brown has this to say on roles:

'There is no definite answer about who, in terms of role, should be writing blurbs for books – in my view sometimes the best person is the marketeer, sometimes the author, sometimes the publisher, depending on the skills of each.'

I agree with this. A flexible approach is needed. And it's not just about their skills. It also depends upon exactly what you're trying to achieve with each blurb.

Here's some specific new approaches that we might try. Some are really basic. Some a bit more radical.

#1 The Conversation

Lots of colleagues have a go at writing a blurb. We compare, we discuss, (we vote?) we adapt, we decide. The competing blurbs can be blown up and put around the office for others to comment on.

Sounds like copywriting by committee, and that is its main drawback; that it can become a collection of compromises. However, having tried it, it does introduce energy to the process, and it helps to distill choices. If one version is all about the atmosphere and location, but another is all based on characters, you have a really interesting and useful choice to make.

#2 Brief It Out

Why not? We spend a fortune on designers, so why not use a freelance copywriter?

It demonstrates commitment, it promotes variety (though some believe freelancers tend to 'give you what they think you want' rather than do anything unusual).

#3 Crowdsource

This might sound wanky if you haven’t tried it, but it’s simply a public competition to create blurb. We tried this with a book called And This Is True, sending out white-covered proofs to members of the public who'd taken up an invitation on our site, or Twitter, or Facebook. The winner was an actor, as it turned out, and I think his copy is genuinely fresh:

In addition to the potential for a surprising approach, this is also cheap and can yeild PR. Though it is immensely time consuming.

It's worth mentioning authors at this point. You'd have hoped they'd be a brilliant resource for blurb: they're the professional writers here. But it's not always the case; naturally they're not the most objective party, and probably more concerned than most with accurate representation, which is not commercially useful. In the above example, the author took the most convincing about the copy. And who can blame her? She does the words, right? Who has the right to put something gimmicky on the back of her book?

#4 Retained Writer

Find one brilliant copywriter to do your whole list. It would create a high overall standard, but it would cost a fortune and might introduce a homogenous tone. Penguin make it work, mind.

#5 Copy Leader

Should you appoint one copy leader per imprint? Could be an editor, could be a marketer, could be a sales person…?

They mind deadlines and own blurbs. Why not give someone the job and see what happens?

#6 Copy Teams

To raise the status and internal ambition for blurbs, should we simply appoint a copy team for each big book? And then brief them really thoroughly: Is there a problem to challenge or avoid? Is there a particular way we want readers to feel? Is there a 'magic moment' we need to highlight? What is the particular function of this blurb?


We’ve seen from the BookZone work on the cover copy awards that it’s really easy to find out which blurbs readers respond to. There’s nothing to stop us testing two different blurbs and letting readers tell us which one makes them want to buy the book.

I'll finish with a quick note on authors and agents, suggested by Damian Horner:

Why not present blurb properly, in person, to author and agent along with cover? The package, all of it, is our communication vehicle, and we should present it to them with confidence. After all, if we rehabilitate copy, rescue it from being the ginger stepchild in the family, we're demonstrating to the world another vital element that the publisher adds. Another reason why we're the experts. Another reason why we're indispensible. And we need those.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Why Publishing Is Better Than Banking

(originally written for the Hodder blog)

When I was upgraded from Work Experience to Postroom Boy, my first paid job in publishing, my best friend delighted in teasing me about the career I had chosen: "tha' can't eat bukes, son" he would state, in unconvincing Yorkshire-ese. And he had a point. The pay was crap. Clearly there was something else that made me, and all of us, stick with bukes.

But what is it, since it's clearly not just that "we really like reading"? I think the answer is half laudable and half ... slightly tacky.

Laudable first: If you love books, and have even the tiniest impulse to share your love of books with the world, what could be more inviting than the opportunity to engage with a book – a text as they'd have said at college – and attempt to add whatever publishing Right Stuff you may have to the thing, in an attempt to get it widely read?

From editor to rep, and beyond, to bookseller, everyone gets a shot at (if you'll forgive the horrid phrase) adding value. It could be creative, it could be nakedly commercial, but it all contributes to the enterprise of making the book popular.

And now the tacky bit; our less classy reason to stay in books: we get to show off. When we go for drinks with old school friends who have been cutting a swathe through the City, say, or billing fortunes at the Bar, we know we can't compete on the financial front. But just try asking them what excited them at work last week. Specifically what bit was best. Chances are your week sounds more fun. Discovering a stunning new author, maybe meeting them and persuading them that your publishing house is their creative home. Puzzling out how to get the public to respond to their book. Even the bad bits are pretty great. Consider the "nightmare" of a steaming row in a cover meeting or a "real struggle" selling a brilliant book to a book loving bookseller. Many people would give their right arm to get paid to do either.

To address, at last, the book in hand: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet sums up exactly what makes me love the business. I started reading it on a family holiday, alongside four people all reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Nothing against Stieg, but by God I felt smug. When you're reading a story no one has ever told before, or even come close, when you're absorbing page after page of prose which makes you grin with its wit, with the delightful surprise of the character's actions, with the sparkle of the ideas being playfully chipped your way by the author ... you're feeling happy. When you pause to reflect that you get to join in, be it with the cover art, the blurb, the text design, or the way it's conveyed to the booksellers and the public, well, then you feel privileged.

And that sums it up. It's a privilege to work on a book like this.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The One About The Man With The Banjo

Cut & pasted from the Hodder blog...

Listening to Frances Spalding on Start the Week last month reminded me of a small obsession: the value of memorable words in a book title. She thinks a good title ‘acts as a capstone’ to a work, and must be ‘wholly at one with the book’. That may well be true, but for shameless unit-shifting reasons, I say a good title is also a memorable one. And a memorable one almost always includes at least one decent noun.

Animals, objects and famous places are easy to remember. And if you can remember the title of a book, or at least a bit of it, then you can ask for it in a shop, or find it online and recommend it to a friend – that critical word-of-mouth factor that creates so many bestsellers.

This was wittily exploited by Penguin in their adverts for Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka:

This is clever for a number of reasons: most importantly it reflects perfectly the way readers actually talk about books. It doesn’t plunge immediately into detail about the plot, because readers don’t. It’s not over-reverential about the author, because readers aren’t. Instead it invites us to recall that we liked the last one so we’ll probably like this one. We can’t remember the last one’s title, or the author’s unpronounceable name, but it’s the new one from that tractors woman and we’ll probably give it a go.

A straw poll of booksellers reinforces the impression that book buyers need all the help they can get remembering book titles.

Dillons alumnus Mike Atherton (not that one, another one) remembers being asked for ‘that motorbike thing by Shaggy Vera’ (The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara). Marie recalls the classic ‘it has some sushi on the front.’ Stephanie tells me that in her days at WH Smith ‘A Cross on the Nightingale's Door’ was nearly as popular an enquiry as the correct title (Across The Nightingale Floor). Wendy reports the priceless ‘set in Greece, about a man with a banjo’ from the Captain Corelli era.

And at the risk of turning this into a post mocking book buyers, I can't resist including this lovely scene in a shop witnessed by Shona Cook, a Canadian publishing friend (the ‘me’ is Shona):

Customer: I need to get that book about cookies. It's something about cookies.

Clerk: Cookies. Okay. (types into the computer) umm... there are quite a few books about cookies here.

Customer: Well it was on TV the other day. My wife saw it on TV.

Clerk: Um. Okay. There are really a lot of books about cookies. Can you tell me anything else about it?

Customer: It's something about making money and cookies. I don't know. She was going on about it at dinner but I wasn't really listening to her.

At this point, I realize which book they are looking for and turn to the clerk.

Me: I think the book you want is called The Smart Cookie’s Guide to Investing


Clerk: Thank you.

Me: Your wife is a lucky woman.

And, rather than get properly back to the point, here's a story from Lucy Mangan, one of our own authors, ex of Waterstone's in Bromley, demonstrating that even a great title won’t be enough for some customers: ‘There's the one who came in saying he didn't know the title (‘Fine,’ I said, moving to the database screen) – or the author (‘Less fine’) but he knew it was ‘this shape’. He drew a rectangle in the air.’

And that brings us nicely on to what happens if you don’t have a memorable title.

Despite the outstanding efforts of India Knight and The Lutyens & Rubinstein Bookshop among others, I reckon the (absolutely brilliant)
Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewellery by Leanne Shapman will always be hampered by its impossible to remember title, despite the fact that the title is an ingenious and integral part of the novel itself. I have had about thirty conversations about it and no one (including me) has yet managed anything closer than ‘you know, the novel written like it’s an auction catalogue’. Test for yourself how hard this makes things: try and find it on Amazon twenty minutes after you’ve finished reading this.

In fact Amazon, and the importance of online search, makes a distinctive, memorable title more vital than ever. You'll need to get at least one word right to find the damn thing online.

A great title, as Frances Spalding puts it, will ‘catch passers-by’, but a bestselling title will stay in the mind of the passer-on.