Archive | July, 2011

Last Chance Saloon (Or Hostel, Really…)

29 Jul

Just a reminder (the last one, I promise!):

This weekend is your last chance to order a signed, personally inscribed copy of my next book, Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America. 

All orders will ship with an exclusive preview of Results Not Typical and shipping comes at a flat rate worldwide. You can also order signed copies of Mousetrapped and Self-Printed too, if you are so inclined.

Click here to find out more and/or order

Not sure if you want to read Backpacked? Well, here’s a little preview of the opening pages to help you decide. And finally, to make up for that blatant self-promotion, here is a cute picture of a kitten in some marshmallows:

Have a good weekend!

Finished! But What Next?

27 Jul

If you happened to be on Twitter late last Friday night, you’ll have seen me venting my excitement that after way too long, four pushed deadlines and enough caffeine to undead a zombie, I finally finished Backpacked. Finally.

Writing Backpacked was much like the trip Backpacked is about: I didn’t want to do it at first, then after a week or so I was thinking, “This isn’t so bad, is it?”, then a few things happened that made me regret my decision to even start, then I almost jacked it all in and then, just when I started to enjoy myself, it seemed to come rushing to a premature end. The last chapter of the book is supposed to be a bit sad, so I listened to Thomas Newman’s The Letter That Never Came – from the soundtrack to A Series of Unfortunate Events – to make me sad so I could put sad on the page, but in doing so, I became genuinely sad. I know: it’s hard to keep up with all the sads.

But why? I knew it wasn’t because I’d finished the book because typing “The End” is my absolutely favorite part of writing. And I hoped it wasn’t because the book was bad, because actually I quite like it. (I even might, dare I say, like it more than Mousetrapped.) So that left just one plausible explanation: I was sad because it’s been ages since I’ve had an adventure.

I got back from Central America in May 2008. Since then I’ve gone on plenty of trips and seen some amazing places, but I haven’t had a true adventure; I’ve lived here the whole time. Of course I was busy doing other things: writing Mousetrapped, submitting Mousetrapped, self-publishing Mousetrapped, writing a novel, submitting the novel, deciding to self-publish the novel too, writing Self-Printed, self-publishing Self-Printed, writing Backpacked… etc. etc. Lots of fantastic things have happened to me as a result of those decisions and I constantly thank my lucky stars that I get to make a living writing books. But although it sounds exciting, it’s not. There’s some exciting things about it, like being on the radio or in a newspaper or talking at a conference, but nine out of every ten days is spent on my arse in front of my desk, at my computer. I don’t even need to leave the house. That’s hardly an adventure.

And I need an adventure, because what I am going to write about next? I suspect that while Twitter is happy enough with my tales of work and coffee-drinking, a book that doesn’t make. So I need to do something, to go somewhere. I have no idea what or where yet, but I’m considering my options.

So there’s that.

Then there’s another thing happening: My Secret Project. Any given hour of any given day online there are an average of twenty-seven writers* whispering about their “secret projects” and it always really annoys me… but now I’m doing it too. Stone me, at once! But the time to do it has to fit in somewhere as well and… well, there’s just a lot going on. And all I really want to do is lie somewhere and get stuck into these:

Because of all these schedule changes, consider Backpacked and Results Not Typical‘s release dates to be in flux. I’ve already brought the end date of the pre-ordering period forward to this Monday, 31st July (as opposed to the end of August which is what it was originally). If you want a signed, personally inscribed copy of Backpacked, click here before Monday.

Last week while I was up to my eyeballs in (the memories of) mosquito nets, cockroaches and food poisoning, a guest post I’d written for Taleist went up about why self-publishers need to start minding their manners. I absolutely detest with a vengeance the phrase “going viral” or any derivative of it, but that’s kind of what happened. My Twitter stream was filled with people re-tweeting it and my blog hits went to Crazy Town – clearly, I’d struck a nerve. Besides one or two people who thought I was literally talking about manners, i.e. self-publishers saying “please” and “thank you” (I despair sometimes, I really do), everyone who left a comment or tweeted about it agreed with me: an air of entitlement has settled over many a self-publisher, and something needs to be done because as writers we are unbelievably lucky when it comes to opportunities these days. Some very interesting points were raised in the comments and I plan on writing more about them in the near future.

Just as soon as I read all those books…

Speaking of which, I was thrilled to hear that Alison Pick’s Far To Go is on the Man Booker longlist. Regular readers will know I reviewed it a while back and it just blew me away. If you haven’t read it, I insist that you do – but have the Kleenex ready because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be a sobbing mess by the end of it.

*I just made that up.

What I Thought Of: SEX ON THE MOON by Ben Mezrich

25 Jul

Every once in a while you hear a little snippet of a story and you think to yourself, I wish someone would write a book about that. I bet it’d be really interesting. Luckily for me, my wishes always seem to come true. For instance back in my virology-obsessed days I kept coming across casual throwaway references to HeLa, an immortal cell line cultivated from a woman’s cervical cancer cells back in the fifties that had since been used in everything from the creation of polio vaccine to AIDS research. I wondered who this woman was and how her cells had come to play such a crucial role in the health of humanity as a whole. Imagine my glee when I heard about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which turned out not only to satisfy my curiosity but became one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books.

Now, it’s happened again – with Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich, which is about one of the most audacious (and stupid) heists in American history: a bid to steal and sell lunar rocks from NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, orchestrated by an intern.

“Thad Roberts, a fellow in a prestigious NASA programme had an idea – a romantic, albeit crazy, idea. He wanted to give his girlfriend the moon. Literally. Thad convinced his girlfriend and another female accomplice, both NASA interns, to break into an impenetrable laboratory at NASA’s headquarters – past security checkpoints, and electronically locked door with cipher security codes and camera-lined hallways – and help him steal the most precious objects in the world: Apollo moon rocks from every moon landing in history. Was Thad Roberts – undeniably gifted, picked for one of the most competitive scientific posts imaginable – really what he seemed? And what does one do with an item so valuable that it’s illegal even to own? Based on meticulous research into thousands of pages of court records, FBI transcripts and documents, and scores of interviews with the people involved, Mezrich – with his signature high-velocity swagger – has reconstructed the madcap story of genius, love, and duplicity all centred on a heist that reads like a Hollywood thrill ride.”

I was pre-disposed to loving this book. Reason number one: it’s by Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires which I really enjoyed. Reason number two: I’m a NASA nut. I couldn’t wait to find out about these lucky “co-ops” at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the undergrads who get to intern at the space agency, and where they got to go and what they got to do while they were there.

And I think that’s the problem, because while I enjoyed Sex on the Moon, I spent almost all of it being utterly infuriated.

Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.

And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck.

For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.

Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.

Mezrich draws Roberts as a man who idly fantasized about how one would break into NASA’s labs without any real intention of ever doing it (in my mind’s eye I saw him pressing “Send” on his e-mail advertising the rocks and then giggling nervously like a schoolgirl who’s just planted a thumb-tack on their teacher’s seat) but then suddenly finds himself pushed over the line into reality and – How did I get here? – at the keypad outside the secure lab. It wasn’t, Mezrich would have us believe, as if he meant to do it.

Yeah… Except that a few days before, Roberts had brushed a special compound on the buttons of that keypad and combined with the backlight he had with him now, he could “read” the access code. And in a motel a few miles away he and his accomplices had set up their own receiving laboratory, a room filled with enough plastic sheeting, tools and latex gloves to make a serial killer proud. And he had buyers ready. So.

And although the rocks were recovered, notebooks in which an eminent NASA scientist had recorded his life’s work never were, but this is swept aside in Sex on the Moon because, hey, Roberts doesn’t remember seeing those during all the moon rock-stealing so that’s alright. The reader is also constantly reminded that NASA had deemed the samples “trash” (they had already been used in scientific research and so couldn’t be used in further research – but they were still priceless lunar rocks) except they weren’t in a trash can, were they? They were in a secure facility that Roberts did not have legal access to, and he was well aware of the laws relating to lunar rocks. (It’s illegal to privately own as much as a particle of them.)

A quick google of what Thad Roberts is up to now confirms what I’d begun to suspect by the end of Sex of the Moon: he’s doing just fine. Unlike his former employers, the owner of the notebooks and the US taxpayers who funded the FBI operation that took him down and the federal prison that housed him during his punishment – and the multi-billion dollar Apollo program in the first place – Roberts appears to have suffered no permanent ill-effects which, of course, only compounds the reader’s annoyance. These days he’s doing TedX talks and working on quantum space theory, so at least he’s putting his brains to better use now than he did in his youth.

But back to the book. Janet Maslin of the New York Times has called Mezrich a baloney artist for the approach he takes to non-fiction, which is to jazz it up so that these tales read more like breathless novels than anything else. Mezrich interprets the facts rather than presents them, but he effectively admits that he does so that doesn’t bother me, and I enjoy his writing style.

What does bother me about Sex on the Moon is that Mezrich – like the version of Roberts he’s presented – doesn’t seem to think any real wrong-doing took place here. I was just waiting for the line, “Well.. it wasn’t like anybody died!”

I’d just about recommend this book, but I’d suspect you’d enjoy it a lot more if you’re not an armchair astronaut.

Click here to find Sex on the Moon on The Book Depository.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Catherine’s Coffee Breaks: Trying Taiwanese Coffee

20 Jul

I love trying new and different types of coffee and so was delighted when Laura, one of my loveliest blog readers, sent me some Taiwanese coffee to try. Not only was the coffee all types of delicious but its delivery system was ingenious.

The coffee came in flat little pouches with handles folded into their sides (above) that when pulled out hooked onto the side of a cup. All you needed to do then was tear off the top to open the pouch and fill it with as much hot water as you wanted coffee. You had to fill it three or four times to fill a cup, but it drained really quickly. I loved the coffee and I loved the pouches.

Unfortunately Laura got them from her parents-in-law and although she thinks they might be available from certain Asian supermarkets, I haven’t managed to locate them here yet. Still looking, though.

You can buy one-cup disposable filters here but nothing as tasty (or as cool!) as this, as far as I’m aware. The best I’ve tried are Rombouts’ individual one-cup filters which I found excruciatingly slow to drain and the fact that they’re plastic kinda turns me off. They do make nice coffee though.

Special thanks to Laura for the coffee – which, in an added bonus, arrived on my birthday!

Click here to read all my coffee breaks.

A reminder: you can now order signed copies of Backpacked, along with Mousetrapped and or Self-Printed if you are so inclined. All orders ship with an exclusive preview of my debut novel, Results Not Typical. I know what you’re thinking – next I’ll be bringing out a pyramid of Ferreo Rocher…

Why Self-Publishers Need to Watch Their Manners

19 Jul

I’m over on Taleist today, a fabulous blog if you have even the mildest interest in self-publishing, guest-posting about why self-publishers need to start behaving themselves, or cop themselves on as we’d say here in Ireland.

“Amazon is effectively the adults’ table, and we self-publishers have been allowed to join. (And yes, I’m using the word allowed, because Amazon is a privately owned business who can sell what they want, not a democracy.) But the stunning success of a very few has imbued some of us with a rebellious over-confidence that seems to make us think we can put our elbows on the table, make faces in our food and throw peas at the other guests, and that we can do it ad infinitum without ever being asked to leave.But that just isn’t the case. If self-publishers don’t buck up and start acting professionally, if we waste these opportunities that have been handed to us on a plate, if we insist on taking advantage of the situation without keeping up our end of the bargain – producing quality content – then we’re going to get sent back to the kid’s table.”

Read the whole post here.

In other news, Self-Printed just got (ahem, another) five-star review on Amazon.com. D. Wright says, “Want more evidence of how great Self-Printed is? Before I read it, I’d planned to write my own “how-to” book detailing my process. But truth is, at the moment, I don’t think I’d come up with something that will top Howard’s effort.” That wasn’t exactly my intention – I don’t want to stop you from writing your own book! – but thanks so much for a great review. As for the rest you, you know it’s like 95% brand new content and the Kindle edition is just $2.99, right?

Guest Post: How Belinda Kroll Used Kickstarter to Fund Her Book

18 Jul

A few weeks back I was singing the praises of Kickstarter and wondering aloud how self-published writers could use it to fund pre-publication costs like editing and cover design with money generated from what is essentially pre-orders. Self-published author and regular reader Belinda Kroll mentioned in the comments that she had done just that, so I asked her to write a guest post about her experience.

Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, Belinda! Tell us everything…

“Reader, if there’s one thing you get out of this guest post, it is that nothing comes for free. If you decide to use an indie micro-funding site such as Kickstarter, Indie GoGo, etc, understand it will take a lot of work (i.e. publicity) on your part to get your name out there. But I’m putting the cart before the horse. In this guest post, I intend to break my experience down into: the application, building the project profile page, rewards, publicity, getting funding, and fulfilling the rewards.

Application

My application was part snarky, part earnest. I decided to take this route because I read everything I could about Kickstarter. The application goes to a team of creatives in NYC, and I figured they would appreciate me showing my attitude. The application wanted to know what sort of medium my project was, why I thought it deserved funding, how many days I wanted to run the funding for, and what sort of rewards I intended to send to my backers. My snark came in when I said I might, if my backers were really awesome, do an interpretive dance as a thank you and post it to YouTube.

Thankfully, the Kickstarter approval committee didn’t hold me to that. I might have done it, if allowed to have a paper bag over my head. I waited anxiously for their decision… within a week I got my approval to create a project profile.

Building the Project Profile Page

Once you set the deadline, you cannot change it. That, and the original URL, are the two bits of information that are static once you create them. Everything else is available for updating as the campaign continues. For instance, I created five different video pitches for my project. The first video had low energy, according to friends and family. They wanted to feel energized and excited to back the project. I did another, and came off too intense and scary. Finally, after fifteen takes, I released a third video talking about my project that would make my book Haunting Miss Trentwood a reality.

I rewrote and updated the project description more times than I can count during the campaign. It was an area for me to practice writing the back cover blurb and general publicity language. I even changed the title of the project itself to be more enticing from the Kickstarter search page. This was a constant source of worry.

I used the project blog as a way to keep my backers excited about the campaign’s progress. The topics of my updates included everything from how I was creating the book cover, pressure of submitting to multiple distributors online, and even the hassle of shipping and handling bulk packages. Later, my backers told me they loved those updates because they really felt like they were a part of something special. It also provided accountability: I promised I would deliver, and deliver I would.

Rewards

Honestly, I think I kind of low-balled myself with the rewards packages. According to the Kickstarter stats, people tend to bid $25 without blinking an eye if they like the project. Therefore, you should put your best deal in that backer segment. I forgot to do a cost analysis before building the $25 reward package, and I’m fairly certain I lost money because of this.

Part of the enticement to pledge $25 was that backers would get a “surprise.” In the last fifteen days of the campaign I updated my backers with photos of the product. It was a coffin-shaped soap that fit perfectly with my Victorian ghost story. When I told my backers about the surprise, a number of them jumped from the $15 segment to the $25, which really helped a lot.

Publicity

I was tweeting like crazy, doing the nausea-inducing hard sell that Americans are desensitized to, and everyone else disgusted by. I have no idea if any of my tweets got me a backer. I sent emails to family, friends, and my old English teachers who always said I’d be published someday, both to ask for their interest and to send the message along to readers who might want to pre-order a copy. I talked about it on my blog and my Facebook profile. I chatted about it at work, after I got over my embarrassment that I was, essentially, asking for money.

The important thing is how you spin it. It’s not that you’re asking for money, it’s that you’re trying to find the readers who would be interested in a pre-ordered, signed print copy of a fun book. Sadly, I didn’t really believe that until months after I finished my campaign. Luckily, I think my language on the website implied I did.

Getting Funding

When I received funding, I screamed. I had asked for $1400, and received just a little more than that. I was ecstatic. And then I remembered that Kickstarter takes a certain percentage (5%?) for hosting the project, and Amazon Merchants takes a processing fee for charging all those credit cards. Still, it was enough money for me to pay my editor and buy the print books, magnets, postcards, and soaps that I would ship to the backers.

Fulfilling Rewards

Wow, what a pain this was. I learned so much about fulfillment because I did it incorrectly. I bought the packaging from the postal office rather than the dollar store until I realized I was paying 3x more than I needed to. I didn’t learn about the cheap shipping option, media mail (meant for books, cds, magazines only), until halfway through, either. So I was paying 2x the amount for shipping and handling.

I learned the hard way that it’s better to label everything and organize the packages based on shipping method BEFORE going to the post office. And for that matter, printing labels is the only way to go when you’re sending out 50 packages around the world. Your fingers will thank you later. And then there’s the matter of the rewards themselves. People don’t need magnets or postcards. I still have piles of them around my apartment, with no idea what to do with them. What a waste of money.

Conclusion

All in all, my Kickstarter experience probably would have been positive no matter what. I learned how much energy goes into a publicity campaign (because really, that’s what it is), especially when you don’t have a solid plan. If I ever do another project, I will have a plan so I know exactly what information will be sent where. I will send out press releases before I launch the project to get a buzz going. I was also building my author platform during the campaign, which hurt me, a little. Had I a solid platform, I might have had more people helping with publicity.

I hope this tell-all was informative for you! I welcome questions, suggestions, and critique. Thanks again, Catherine, for inviting me to talk about my experience!”

Thank YOU, Belinda!

Very interesting and food for thought for many of us, I’m sure. Check out Belinda on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and find out more about her work on her author website.

A reminder: you can now order signed copies of Backpacked on buybackpackedbook.com, along with Mousetrapped and/or Self-Printed if you are so inclined. All orders ship with an exclusive preview of my debut novel, Results Not Typical. I know what you’re thinking – next I’ll be bringing out a pyramid of Ferreo Rocher. 

Flipback Books: My Verdict

15 Jul

We all know that I am an unapologetic lover of books made from dead trees and that despite selling lots of e-books, I have – to date – read the sum total of two of them. One was only available in e-book and the other was too short for me to justify purchasing in print, and while I read them I had to actively push down my Kindle-induced rage.

These two exceptions aside, I buy every single book I read (when I don’t get them for free, to review) and I like my words on paper, not in computer code. This is because books themselves hold an appeal for me that is entirely separate to the experience of reading them. I like looking at them all lined up on my shelves. I just love books, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. (We all remember the Vintage Books/Jo Nesbo/mismatched cover fiasco, don’t we? Thanks again for my matching set, Vintage Books!)

So when I heard about these new “flipback” books, my first thought was “They. Are. So. CUTE!” and my second was, “I must have them.” The idea is that the books are small (about the size of an iPhone), light (they’re made from bible paper) and extremely portable, so they tick the convenience box while remaining a real, live book. Or a real dead book, to be more accurate. As the name suggests, you flip the cover up to read them top-to-bottom as opposed to left-to-right.

Personally I don’t think books as they currently exist are in any way broken and I don’t mind going on holidays with two outfits and laundry money because I’ve filled my suitcases with a stack of summer reads – in October I actually left clothes behind me in the States to make way for a haul of books from The Strand bookstore in New York and I DON’ REGRET IT ONE TINY BIT – but I acknowledge that other people might not feel the same way and flipbacks are certainly the non-Kindle solution to your holiday suitcase problem.

But there are three things I don’t like about them.

The first is the price, which for now I suppose can’t really be helped. All flipbacks are made by just one printer based in the Netherlands so this explains the €12.50 price tag (although not why The Book Depository can manage to sell them for €8.49.) Maybe – hopefully – that’ll change in the future, especially as they start to add more titles. (Hello? The Help? Would that not be the best flipback title ever?) But it’s a Catch-22 situation because in order for the price to be lower they’ll have to be mass produced on a larger scale, but in order for that to happen there’ll need to be a bigger demand, and in order for there to be a demand people have to rush out and buy them, which they’re dissuaded from doing now because of the high price.

The second is that while I love how the flipback looks as a physical book, it annoys me that the spine text is printed in the wrong direction. Call me crazy – I know you do – but yes, things like that annoy me. When a book is a on shelf, the text should be the right way up with the front cover to the right. On a flipback it’s only the right way up if the front cover is to the left. Maybe, again, this is related to their Dutch origins but if you want me to collect the whole set, the whole set is going to have to look cute on my bookshelves, not make me bristle with book-lover annoyance every time I see it.

Lastly, reading a flipback is easy and comfortable, but only when you get passed the first fourth or fifth of the book. At the beginning  the whole weight of the book is hanging by a page, and that just feels weird. Also I don’t believe this read-with-one-hand business. You can hold it with one hand, yes, but if you read quick there’s no point, because you’re turning the pages so quickly that it’s hardly worth your while putting down the other hand. And why are we aspiring to read with one hand? Because we can with a Kindle and the flipback is trying to compete? I hope so, because otherwise I have to ask: we’re talking about reading a book here. How lazy are you people?!

Having said all that, they do have a high novelty factor, they make a great present (they are much easier to post half way around the world than their bigger brothers) and they’re collectable. They are also so beautifully made that you can practically hear them whisper quality. As a cover junkie I particularly love how well the original cover designs have been so perfectly re-sized to fit the flipbacks, with Misery, one of my two flipback purchases, looking particularly good. But with only 12 titles available for now – and my local Waterstones only stocking four of them – I don’t think they’re quite there yet.

And I can only hope that the Guardian’s headline “Could this new book kill the Kindle?” was penned for effect and not because they actually think there’s a chance in hell the two things are related, because they’re not. It’s like asking, “Could this new spork kill the spoon?”

(Incidentally, my favorite line from that piece was, “Unlike an ordinary paperback, the book lies open without intervention on my part, due to its special spine.” This goes hand in hand – no pun intended, HA! – with the reading them with one hand thing. Again: how lazy a person do you have to be for this to be a selling point?!)

But I don’t doubt I’ll be buying more in the future though.

We all know I’m a sucker for a novelty item, especially if it’s book-related.

What do you think about them? Will you buying one? And what titles would you like to see in flipback form?

Find out more about flipback books here. The Book Depository seem to have the best deal on them and don’t forget they have free shipping worldwide.

(On a related note, I’m extremely disappointed that one of the flipback titles is A Million Little Pieces and that on the cover it’s referred to as a memoir, on its listing all the glowing reviews are pre-Smoking Gun exposé and so contain words like “memoir” and “honest”, and there is no mention of the fact that is a big stinky heap of complete and utter bullshit. A disclaimer inside the book is not enough if you’re going to act like it doesn’t exist whenever it suits you.)

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