Friday, 5 October 2012

Printing a Bookplate

I was commissioned by an old friend, C, to make an 'ex libris' bookplate for her husband, J. Her brief was pretty detailed:

  • In the style of Eric Gill, because her husband, like all right thinking people, is a massive fan (despite the dog-bothering and so on)
  • Featuring a quote from Samuel Beckett, another hero of his: "I know what the words know"
  • Depicting a pohutukawa tree, from his native New Zealand
  • And depicting his whole family.

That's some kitchen sink brief, but I like a challenge.

My source material included a book of Gill prints, featuring this little cracker:

Google images of the pohutukawa tree:

... and my own memory of the back of J's head and those of his family. I don't really do faces (too difficult), but fortunately, J's family have properly distinctive hairdos.

Stage one:

A massive ripoff of the Gill type style. I particularly like the little diamonds to separate words

Stage two

Tree and family added

Absolutely MASSIVE cockup averted here when C asked that J could join in the family group rather than sit alone, as though in some righteous dadly huff. If she noticed that I'd witlessly copied the Kindle logo she was good enough not to say, but it was a good save in any case.

She also correctly pointed out that J looked a bit Sideshow Bob. Now his hair really IS that big, but on balance his feet probably aren't a yard long, so I had another go.

Stage three

The final, un-Simpsons sketch was transferred by The Magic Primary School Tracing Paper Method to a sheet of lino.


Stage Four

I gouged the lino block

... and printed it. Early versions were a bit rough

... but I got there in the end. The fine folks at Marstan Press printed a few hundred on sticky backed matt stock, and the deed was done.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Under the Hood - Creative Transparency in Publishing

This is a (rather long) version of a talk I gave at the recent Bookseller Creativity Conference.

There are many problems that loom over publishers these days. Among the loomiest - and most familiar - are these two:

‘How do we talk directly to readers?’

‘How do we show that we matter?’

We worry that traditional retail and traditional media are both declining, so if we want to get our products noticed by people, we can’t rely on others to do it for us. Most publishers are already talking to readers direct; but most want to do it more often, and better, and more quickly.

And in a world of easy self-publishing and agents with disintermediation on their minds, we publishers feel a pressing need to demonstrate to the world what exactly it is that we do that’s so excellent and so worthwhile.

I have a suggestion that might help answer both of these questions: allow the public to see more of what we do.

Not allow them to do what we do: this is not crowdsourcing, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's about presenting ourselves as experts. Interesting, trustworthy partners with our authors in the wonderful process that makes good reading... good.

Of course I’m not proposing that we lay open everything we do to the gaze of Johnny Public. Some of it’s too secret. Some of it - with the greatest of respect to our Bought Ledger department - is too dull. Some of it’s both.

Sometimes, clearly, opening things up to the public is inappropriate. If you’ve just spent a quazillion pounds poaching James Patterson, you’re going to want to look infallible. You don’t want to see staff over-sharing about the work on Twitter: 

“Totes out of ideas for J-Patz cover!! All these ones are rank!! ROFL”.

But that’s not a typical scenario. What’s much more typical is a brand new author or book which you have to launch from nothing, and frankly anything that gets the public engaged with it and curious about it is worth considering. Particularly if that thing might represent better value than the four-sheet posters you might otherwise be forced to do.

So how would this work, practically? How would we interest people and demonstrate our value by opening up our processes? Fortunately some publishers are doing fantastic work in this area already, and we can learn/steal from them.

Penguin do creative transparency very well.  Their website features lots of excellent videos of designers talking about how they made their covers, along with editors, copywriters (or “blurbistes”) and others.

My favourite is actually quite an old one. It’s Coralie Bickford Smith talking about designing the Gothic Horror novels in the Red Classics series.

It eschews slickness in favour of wit and honesty, and is very, very charming as a result. And it makes you want to own those books. It dramatises the creative process, shows you what care and cleverness went into it. So it helps you realise that the books are worth buying, at a premium price.

And the buying bit is key: this is not just done for fun It’s done to engage readers and also to show our value, so that the reader engagement turns into sales and the demonstration of worth results in good acquisitions.

When the BBC wanted to build on the success of the series Luther, their main tactic was to stoke expectation for the second series using a very cool website. It worked brilliantly - the site was visited by hundreds of thousands and the second series was much bigger than the first. But the website feature that kicked it off was simply a picture of the first page of the script. Massive response.

And this was an idea that Penguin learned from/stole/just coincidentally came up with on their own: when they posted a picture of the first page of the new Zadie Smith manuscript on their fiction blog they got 2,500 views in a day.

Keen readers, the people who pay our wages, tend to be interested in the creative and curatorial processes we undertake. I have found this out visiting three book groups a year, routinely. They all love seeing our book proofs, seeing the cover visuals that we didn’t use, and hearing the story of how a book came to be the success it was..

More examples: Orbit’s Lauren Panepinto posted a video ages showing a speeded-up screengrab of her designing the cover of a fantasy novel called Blameless.

Publishers, traditionally, are homework-hiders. We say ‘it’s all about the books’ partly because we’re scared of pushing ourselves forward and being judged.

But not in this video. It has a big mistake in it. But no one would get to the end bit of that video and think “durr, stupid publishers” because they’re too busy being impressed by the design skills on display. So the bit where the Eiffel Tower appears a few decades early is funny, and it’s human, and it goes to emphasise the excellence of everything else. It might not even be a  particularly unique cover, but having watched the process I kind of love it, and I’d recognise it if I saw it again.

Another example of exposing the publishing process comes from Osprey, who are way ahead of most in their direct communication with readers. They post things like this on their blog:

It’s really straightforward. It’s just saying “we’re really excited about our new book on the Great Lakes Warships—” (aren’t we all?)  “—here are some draft sketches from the book in progress”. That’s it. The fans love it because they get to anticipate the new book and get a frisson of behind the scenes-ness. The team at Osprey get to remind us that they’re involved in actually making the thing.

Here’s one of the reader comments this post generated:

“Thanks for sharing. They look great. Illustrations like these show why Osprey’s still the best at what they do.”

The amount of reader interaction Osprey get is huge. If they tweet about cake in the office, followers will ask ‘whose birthday is it??’ But lest we write those followers off as “nerdy military history stalker types”, consider that large numbers of them subscribe to the publisher’s membership scheme for a monthly fee, so they can buy books direct from them at a discount. Significant direct sales, month in, month out.

A couple of other examples. Mills and Boon have started doing Google hangouts where the editor and author talk together about the books together. And Penguin often get editors and authors on stage together at literary festivals, also talking about the books almost as partners.

My lot, Hodder & Stoughton, recently helped our author Lindsey Davis tell part of the story of the creation of her book Master and God. Lindsey writes an excellent newsletter for her readers, which we print for her, and there was a feature in the most recent one about the new book cover. 

It begins “I prepared a brief which said “the themes are paranoia, survival through friendship and love and corruption as signalled by the leitmotif of a fly. I admit paranoia must be awkward to draw”.
She goes on to describe the back and forth of the creative negotiation that led to the cover. Her inspirations, the designer’s response, her feedback. The photographer, it turns out, auditioned several fake dead flies before finding a real dead fly who was perfect.

She ends on “I just thought my readers would like to know that”.

So, we can make videos about the creative process, we can blog work in progress, we can enlist the author to talk about their interaction with the publishing team. All interesting, all involving, all - if you’ll forgive the verbcrime – ‘surfacing the value add’.

What else can we try to take this further?

Anyone who’s ever been to a digital innovation conference will have seen the video showing how they made the Sony Bravia TV ad. The ad featured thousands of colourful bouncy balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco. I’m sure I’m not alone in being more entertained by the footage of the guys filling massive air cannons full of bouncy balls at dawn than in the ad itself.


So, book marketers next time  someone comes up to you and says “can we do a trailer for this novel? Something really filmic, yeah?”: do it, but consider also shooting a little homemade documentary of the process of making that trailer. Talk about what you’re trying to say about the book. Why you love it and what you’re trying to convey about it. Talk about the choices you make and the ideas you didn’t use.

Also: the next time your author, or an actor, is recording an audio book, why not try videoing that, to show how that fascinating process works? Not so much the technical aspect, but artistically.

Another thought: People who write copy do a very creative job. An undervalued one, as I seem to have insisted before.

Say you had a week to write the best possible blurb for your new literary smash. What would happen if you committed to blogging a draft of it every day of that week, with a short explanation of why you’re trying this approach, what aspect of the work you’re focussing on... and inviting comment on whether it works?

The ultimate laying open of the publishing process would of course be to put a manuscript online, complete with the author’s and editor’s comments and changes, or all to see. Most authors would loathe this idea, and most editors too. But don’t assume it’ll never happen. I bet there are authors who would do it. And if an author is happy to reveal that process of mediation and refinement in which the editor is a vital partner, then why wouldn’t the editor in question be up for it too? “Because it’s weird!” I know. But still.

I’d like to emphasise at this point that I do recognise that all of those ideas represent hours of work and effort, some of it quite uncomfortable. And no one has spare time on their hands. But I would urge you to consider the strategic importance of communicating interestingly, direct to readers, and demonstrating the worth of publishers. Keen readers are interested in this stuff, as we’ve seen. So let’s make use of that interest.

Think about the big book for next spring you’re most passionate about as a company. The one about which you’re saying, “We’ve got to do everything for it. Like When God Was a Rabbit. Like The Passage.”. Then imagine you decided to tell the story of that publication as it’s happening. How well would you come across as a company, as a group of committed, creative people? How great would the book look? 

Challenge your corporate reticence. Be proud. Find clever ways to show the world the creative role you play in the life of bestselling books. It’s not about shouting about your results, it’s about revealing your expertise.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Guest Post: Jamie d'Ath of The Unsamaritans Book Club

Venue: Jamie and Katie’s
When a show of hands was called to see who had read the book and only two arms were raised, it seemed the discussion would be done and dusted in 5 minutes. Surprisingly though there was a very interesting and well contributed to discussion.
To recap, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev written in the mid-19th century uses generational conflict to explore the changing demographics and social structure within Russian society post the Crimean War. A relatively short book, Turgenev nevertheless manages to create some complex yet believable characters which give the reader a valuable insight into an important period of Russian history.
GT opened up the discussion with a vivid description of him turning the final pages whilst lying resplendent in his silk bed robe listening to the rain tap dancing on his veranda. His succinct view was that Turgenev’s novel was as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. To be honest most of us were still digesting the big man in his silk robe but Sarah managed to step in kick off the discussion on the meat of the book; the characters. Bazarov, understandably got the most air time.  Despicable, dull, superficial, loathsome, crass, insincere were words thrown up to describe his supposedly unflinching commitment to nihilism, or was that about Marshall? It was widely agreed that conviction to nihilism was sorely tested and broken by his unrequited love for Madame whatsherface. The rationale being, how can you be truly nihilistic if you felt an emotion as strong and irrational as love? Ergo great idea, bad execution pal. The suggestion was that Turgenev was trying to subtly mock the boldness and uncompromising nature of youth which mellows and faces compromise over time.
Frances posed the question, after the savaging of young Bazzy, who was the most likeable character? Arkady seemed to get the nod for his more conciliatory and reasoned approach to life. He was a nihilist but realised the limitations of the movement in its absolute form.  Madame whatsherface got an honourable mention, brought to the fore by James S, but I think that was more recognition for the depth and complexity of her character at a time when woman in literature were painted as stereotypical figures. A certain sympathy was felt for Vasily, Bazarov’s father, who has a realistic perspective on his position in society and whilst is keen for change, understands the need for a link to the past. In contrast Pavel, was felt to be a bit of a pompous plonker.
What came out in the discussion was the impact on the reader of the different translations. Depending on which publication the respective members of the group had read, there was a subtle difference in how the language was handled. Marshall reckoned there was too much use of the word “mate” and felt that was more appropriate for a south Queensland mining tavern than common speak of mid-19th Century Russians.
The “where are they now” technique was met with mixed reviews. Frances felt it was a little crude but pulled the story together whilst GT thought it worked well in this instance.
Katie treated us to a couple of lines in Russian which contrasted somewhat to GT’s silk robe imagery and helped us contextualise the novel. I think the general consensus was that Fathers and Sons was a good choice and an interesting read, which gave contemporary readers a realistic landscape from which to explore the changing dynamic of Russian society.
Honourable mention must go to the bringers of food which went down a treat. Thank you.
Next month’s book club is The Finkler Question. Let’s not do a Figures…..

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Hippy Kazoo

I have little time for the hippy aesthetic, so when we pitched up with the kids in a woodland skills workshop in the shadow of Screel Hill in Dumfrieshire, I was a bit put off by the tie-died baggy trousers and unlaced combat boots. Worse was to come: we'd arrived just in time for the group exercises. Kids being invited to hide under a tarp in the middle of a circle of people, then grow into a beautiful flower when we chanted their name. B, perfectly sensibly, declared himself out. As did a growing number of other kids. In fact, as ... was it Phoebe? later admitted, the more group bonding games she tried, the faster people fled.

Fortunately at this point, Phoebe dispensed with the cheesy games and introduced us all to the thing that this lot did best: making good things from wood. Their camp testified to this ability: one extremely handsome cabin made from naturally-shaped logs, joined with pegs and walled with wattle and daub. Exactly the same construction methods as used in the Globe theatre.

They gave B a project: make a kazoo out of a hazel branch and two rubber bands. Here's how it's done:

1) Take one seven year old boy, hand him a (troublingly large and sharp) saw. Bid him saw about three inches off the branch.

2) Hand boy a (troublingly large and sharp) knife. Bid him split the wood lengthwise.

3) He then scrapes the blade down the middle bit of each interior face of the wood, to create a shallow depression.

4) Then he wraps a rubber band lengthwise round one bit of wood, sandwiches both bits together and fastens with another rubber band, and also some little ones round the ends just to be sure.

5) He places his mouth over the hole, blows, creates amusing honking noise, laughs head off.

There you are. Thank you clever hippies.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Guest Post: Geoffrey Thomas of The Unsamaritans Book Club

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald


Following our book group discussion of ‘The Blue Flower’,James asked me to put together a review. I do so with a certain apprehension because nothing I write will do justice to the subtleties, flavours and textures of this remarkable novel which opens up the smallest window on a period of European cultural history and of lives truly led.

I have little doubt that some readers will be left feeling dissatisfied or short-changed by ‘The Blue Flower’. Penelope Fitzgerald does not do exposition and her sparing style means she frequently asks the reader to fill in the blanks. Moreover, with a minimum of help from her, if we are to walk alongside ‘The Blue Flower’, we are expected to suspend moral judgment and to immerse ourselves in a time and place where new ideas, philosophy, scientific method, death and transfiguration are common currency.

Reading ‘The Blue Flower’ is like sitting under the wand of a magician, but it is not always an easy road to travel.

Those of you who have already read ‘The Blue Flower’ may disagree with much of what follows because in addressing the central and to some, baffling question that lies at the heart of the book, I reach a conclusion that may be wide of the mark. Indeed, it would not surprise me if Miss Fitzgerald is looking down on me now as I write, gently shaking her head and saying “decent try Geoffrey, but wrong, wrong, wrong”.


It is generally accepted that ‘The Blue Flower’ is the story of the formative years of eighteenth century German Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg or ‘Fritz’) who falls in love with twelve year old Sophie von Kuhn. That the two of them had nothing in common, were of dissimilar temperaments and of wildly different intellects gives this short novel its narrative drive. However, the relationship between Fritz and Sophie also provides us, as readers, with our biggest challenge, namely, that the author resolutely refuses to offer a quick-fix explanation as to why Fritz became so besotted with Sophie, a rather plain looking twelve year old girl.

But so multi-layered is ‘The Blue Flower’ that as soon I came up with a plausible explanation to this conundrum, then it suddenly hit me- this is not what the book is really about at all. It is actually Sophie who is the moral fulcrum of ‘The Blue Flower’ and not Fritz.


We know that von Hardenberg became the famous poet Novalis, but my suspicion is that Miss Fitzgerald sees him in far more prosaic terms. She views Fritz as an impetuous, emotionally immature, rather na├»ve young man convinced of the notion of a ‘soul mate’ (in today’s parlance) and love at first sight. And although Miss Fitzgerald understands that Fritz is not a fool, in her eyes, he is clearly foolish. He compares Sophie to the self-portrait by Raphael , he seeks to have her educated and he tries to attribute to her poetry and a culture which is clearly not part of her make-up Fritz treats Sophie as an empty vessel that he can fill-up with Romantic ideals, but in reality, it is he that is the empty vessel.

Through the arrogance and impetuosity of youth, Fritz’s declared love for Sophie creates havoc and much of the second half of ‘The Blue Flower’ is about the fall-out from the emotional havoc that Fritz has created all around him But here Miss Fitzgerald performs an almost imperceptible sleight-of hand – amid all this chaos, the focus of the novel shifts from Fritz to Sophie. And it is only when Sophie takes centre stage do we realise how shallow Fritz actually is.


If there is an irony in ‘The Blue Flower’ it is that Fritz is right in his instincts about Sophie, but because of his obsession with the Romantic ideal and selfish notion of love, he fails to see Sophie’s true quality. The person who can see Sophie’s quality is Fritz’s brother Erasmus who, like the reader, moves from being baffled as to why his brother has fallen headlong in love with this girl to falling in love with her himself. And it is Erasmus who is the instance of the fingerpost in ‘The Blue Flower’.

I suggested that Miss Fitzgerald asks her readers to fill in the blanks. What was it about Sophie that drew Erasmus to her?

This is the true miracle of ‘The Blue Flower’. Without overtly parading Sophie before us and whilst ostensibly still writing a book about the early years of Germany’s most famous Romantic poet, the author shifts our perception of Sophie from a plain and unremarkable girl to someone who has a simple beauty; to someone who is humorous, honest, self-deprecating and brave. For all of von Hardenberg’s musings about love and beauty, the most telling chapters in the book are the ones which describe how Sophie bears her illness with a dignity, a calm and quiet fortitude, refusing to be needy or selfish by asking Fritz to come to her side when she is dying.

In the final analysis, it is Sophie that has the purity and a moral compass which for all Fritz’s fine words, he does not possess.


I suspect that whatever someone writes tells you as much about them as it does the subject they write about. Reading what I have just written I am forced to address one pertinent question – why have I given Fritz such a hard time? The answer of course, is that I see much of him in me –emotionally reckless, abidingly selfish and immature to a degree that is just about permissible in the fledgling career of one of Europe’s great Romantic poets, but is little short of pathetic in a fifty-three year old man.

I do have a nice turn of phrase though.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Shelf o'Glory - Joe Abercrombie

My colleagues are collecting pics of prized book collections on the Hodderscape Facebook page. Here's mine:

You'll notice that my Shelf of Glory is both small and schizophrenic, running to a mere five fantasy books before coming over all cycling-y.

Truth is, I'm not a fantasy reader. I was, in my teenage years; the books, the RPGs, White Dwarf magazine, the lot. But when I hit the pseudy, chin-stroking student phase, I gave it all up.

Then last year a friend suggested, nay, insisted I read The Blade Itself. It looked more like a military historical novel - a genre I'm partial to - than fantasy, so I got stuck in. The title, incidentally, is taken from a brilliantly ominous line from The Odyssey: "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence".

From the first line of dialogue ("shit", charmingly) I knew I was reading something distinctive. Six books later, I’m a fully paid up fan.

The Abercrombie novels conform to a conventional fantasy setup in many cases (rag-tag band of misfits on a quest; weakling son redeems himself as a hero etc) but that’s a deliberate ploy: a self-imposed genre boundary to play with, and sometimes undermine.

The quality I most prize in these books is I think a very English one. I seem to remember from the chin-stroking college days that it's called bathos. Abercrombie deploys his wit to undermine pomposity and pretention, both in his characters and in the genre. For example:

"Evidently there was more to being a king than fine clothes, a haughty manner, and always getting the biggest chair".

When someone dies, they are invariably said to have gone "back to the mud", but even while alive they seem metaphorically unable to escape from its clutches. The world view of these novels, along with their dialogue, is brilliantly earthy. As a result, you’re not distanced from the characters, as you can be, reading fantasy; in fact you feel their humanity, and you laugh along ruefully with them.

Another huge attraction of these books is the presence of a brilliant antihero - Sand dan Glokta – and that’s something they share with a new series we're publishing by Daniel Polansky called Low Town. The Warden is basically a hard as nails fantasy drug dealer, who’s done his time in the army and is busy trying to balance survival in a hard (indeed Low) town, investigation of murders by beings from another dimension and the impulse to get stoned. And why wouldn’t you want to read that? Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure. Read it – it’s good.