A Crafty Catherine Christmas: Adventures in Baking

Although I have no real interest in cooking (I’ll admit though, one of my New Years resolutions is to learn how; I’ve asked Santa for a cookbook), I do love to bake. And let’s not beat around the eggs on this one: the reason I love baking is that it produces cakes, cookies and cupcakes, and once they’re made you get to eat them. It’s the perfect hobby, if you ask me, and Christmas is the perfect time to indulge in it, as (a) it is generally expected of you and (b) you can force feed your visitors your delicacies so the calories pile onto their hips instead of yours.

Go Bananas

Banana nut bread, oddly, always reminds of me of Orlando, because whenever I stopped off at my local Starbucks I picked up a slice of it to go with my venti latte. The beauty of banana bread is that it’s not so sickly sweet that you can’t have it on the side of your morning coffee, but add some cream and it’s magically a dessert. YUM. I first made it using a recipe I found online that had about a trillion five star reviews. (Slight exaggeration – but only slight!) It was called Extreme Banana Nut Bread or EBNB for short and it had so much sugar in it I could practically feel myself getting diabetes just mixing it. But it was gorgeous – very banana-y, wonderfully moist and a shade sweet. My dad told me not to make it anymore because it was too nice to resist, and as I said it did have about three bags of sugar in it… (Slight exaggeration – but only slight!)

Then a few weeks ago I caught the last few minutes of that Nigel Slater cooking program that’s on just before The Apprentice, and he was making Black Banana Cake. (The more ripe the bananas the better, apparently.) This makes only half the amount the recipe above does, and I didn’t roast my own hazelnutsyou’re kidding me, right?but bonus: it has chocolate chips! (It’s the one pictured.) I have to say though that even although it’s a tad sweet, the moistness and banana-ness of the Extreme Banana Bread cannot be beat.

Christmas Cupcakes

Who doesn’t love a good cupcake? These were easy to make (using this basic cupcake recipe from the magical interweb, substituting lemon juice for milk and adding two tablespoons of grated lemon zest for the lemon cupcakes, and swapping out two tablespoons of flour for cocoa powder for the chocolate ones) and a bloody nightmare to decorate. But it was fun. I think. Although I spent about five hours doing it, all in all, and now my back aches. And there was an unholy amount of washing up to do. And I’m not sure you could really eat them, what with the green icing alone containing enough sugar to keep a small child awake for days.

But don’t they look pretty on my lovely new cake stand?

Toblerone Cheesecake

While I find watching her cook completely cringeworthy, you can’t beat Nigella Lawson for Tasty Treats That Are Very, Very Bad for You, and one of them is my absolute favorite: Toblerone cheesecake. Luigi Malones (Cork and Dublin) does an astounding Toblerone cheesecake – with fudge! – that started a love affair between me and cheesecake flavored with brand name sweets. (Snickers and Malteasers cheesecakes are my favorites, if you were wondering.) When I found a recipe for making it at home, I knew my waistline wasn’t safe.

You can find the recipe here. It involves no baking, and you get to crush a whole packet of digestive biscuits AND a couple of Toblerones. It’s almost as good as eating it. (Although – warning – it’s very rich. The filling is made from cream cheese, cream and melted chocolate bars, so you can hardly say this comes as a surprise.) The only problem is that you have to leave it chill for at least three hours, preferably overnight. That takes some serious patience.

I also made chocolate chip and hazelnut cookies (above), although if there’d been vanilla ice-cream anywhere in the house the raw dough wouldn’t have made it anywhere near the oven…

Did I make anything healthy, you ask? Are you serious? It’s Christmas!

And yes, the diet starts in January.

Click here to read all my Christmas posts.

Unsolved Mysteries

Does anyone else remember Unsolved Mysteries?

I was about 10 or 11 years old and, as was typical for me at the time, watching television that was wholly unsuitable for my age group. Unsolved Mysteries was like a very, very scary Crimewatch. It featured chilling re-enactments of everything from murders to conspiracy theories to rumored UFO abductions, and the terrifying timbre of host Robert Stack’s voice floated in and out of my nightmares on a regular basis. Its soundtrack wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows either – even today, watching the YouTube video below, I got a little chill at the theme tune.

It’s how I first heard about Alcatraz, as far as I know, and I turned to the ever faithful YouTube to re-watch the episode after my visit to The Rock in October. Those dummy heads are even creepier in real life.

What I Thought Of… THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo

Did I buy a copy of The Snowman by Jo Nesbo even though I’d never heard anything about it or its author because:

  • (a) It was an impulse buy, near the register
  • (b) It had a sticker on it that said “€4 off”
  • (c) I had €5 on my loyalty card, so it was basically free
  • (d) A blurb on the cover said, “The next Stieg Larsson.”
  • (e) All of the above.

The answer is (e) All of the above. Yes, I’m a sucker, and yes, telling me someone is the next Larsson is a sure fire way to get me to buy their book, even though I don’t even like him all that much. And in order to buy a book, I will use things like loyalty card points to justify my purchase – whatever it takes. But boy, am I glad I picked up that book, because Jo Nesbo is one of my new favorite crime writers… although I’m now terrified of snowmen.

Soon the first snow will come and then he will appear again. And when the snow has gone, he will have taken someone else.

A young boy wakes to find his mother missing. Their house is empty but outside in the garden he sees his mother’s favorite scarf – wrapped around the neck of a snowman. As Harry Hole and his team begin their investigation they discover an alarming number of wives and mothers have gone missing over the years. When a second woman disappears it seems that Harry’s worst suspicions are confirmed; for the first time in his career Harry finds himself confronted with a serial killer operating on his home turf.

Nesbo is no Stieg Larsson – he is so much better than him. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It took a little bit longer than the average crime novel to get into, but if you managed to push through the slow start it was worth it. But then came books 2 and 3, and they just felt like sprawling, unwieldy first drafts. And after I read Nora Ephron’s The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut, I could never quite look at Larsson the same way again.

Nesbo’s writing is totally different. There are no clumps of unnecessary description or distracting tech porn; it reads much like the crime novels I’m used to, and most of the time you forget it’s a translation. But yet it doesn’t lose its uniqueness, and a wintry Norway proves wonderfully – or terrifyingly – atmospheric. And where Nesbo really leaves everyone else in the dust is with his plotting.

The plot reminds me of a series of 24, or a set of Russian dolls in reverse: just when it seems like the net is closing in, it bursts open, revealing a far wider and more complicated spider’s web than you thought was there before. With its right angle twists and turns, reading this book is a bit like being on that god awful ride they have in Universal Orlando, the one with two coasters seeming to head straight for it each other only to take off in a different direction at the very last second. And because there’s so many different threads, even if you do have your suspicions about the resolution of one of them, you’ll never guess the others.

And it’s creepy. Lots of books claim to be creepy but really, how many of them actually are? In the opening pages, a young boy discovers someone has built a snowman on the lawn outside his house. How festive, you might be thinking, but this snowman is facing inwards, looking into the house. And when the little boy goes upstairs to his room, it seems as if the snowman’s coal eyes have moved, and he is now looking up at him…

(Ooooh, I just got a little shiver there just thinking about that!)

I highly recommend The Snowman. And the only thing better than discovering a new author you love is discovering one who has four other novels in the same series and a new one coming out in the spring. Hooray for “€4 off” stickers.

(I’m writing this post on Friday 17th December. About an hour before I started it, the first real heavy snow to hit Cork descended, and within half an hour the place was blanketed. My mum came into the room, looked out the window and said, “At least if anyone wants to make a snowman, they can do it now.” ???!!!)

Click here to buy The Snowman from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Mark Coker’s 7 Secrets to E-Book Self-Publishing Failure

A while back Mark Coker, founder of e-book self-publishing site Smashwords, outlined what he believes are the 7 secrets to self-publishing failure. The man talks a lot of sense – if only more people listened to him. You can read the article in full here, but if you don’t want to click here’s a summary with some of my own thoughts thrown in for good measure. If you’re about to embark on e-book self-publication, take note.

1. Fail to respect the reader (customer)

Publishing your ebook can be done in an afternoon. The temptation to get your work out there right now is so great – I know it is, because I’ve experienced it myself – but you need to relax, and take your time. Edit and revise until you feel you can do no more. Then have someone else look at it, a professional. Family, friends and spouses don’t count unless they also make their living as editors, and even then I’d be suspect. Put thought, time and skill into an attractive cover. Your early readers cannot be guinea pigs, nor can they be unwitting members of a virtual writers’ group. The work must be finished and ready for the world before they lay their eyes on it. If it’s not, they might well be the only readers that work ever has.

I put customer in brackets because as I’ve said before in previous posts, writing may well be a romantic, creative act that refuses to be tamed, but once you print it out, bind it (or convert it) and slap a price tag on it, it becomes a business. Whatever has gone on before is irrelevant, because now you are offering people a product in exchange for their hard-earned cash, and you are obligated to deliver on the product’s promise. Charging $24.99 for a 5,000-word e-book about the time you made madeira cake that is so badly formatted it looks like Space Shuttle schematics is NOT delivering on that promise.

2. Limit distribution

According to Mark, some Smashwords authors are picky about where their e-books will be sold and remove their titles from retail channels where – for the moment – they don’t win many sales. This is so stupid I’m not quite sure where to begin, so I’m just going to reiterate the obvious: don’t do it, you moron! As Mark says, “Every time an author deliberately removes their book from a retailer’s shelf, a little angel in heaven sheds a tear, or stabs itself in the eye.”

3. Limit sampling

Sampling means the percentage of the book readers can download to their devices for free before they decide to purchase, a try before you buy kind of thing, the electronic equivalent of taking a book down off the shelf in the store and flicking through some pages to see if you like the author’s style. I’ll try and say this nice, okay? If you limit or disable sampling you are telling me that you know absolutely nothing about e-book publication, might be stupid and are almost definitely doomed to failure. A little harsh, perhaps. Or maybe not harsh enough. I say this because of the reason writers limit or disable sampling: it’s because they don’t want anyone to “get” any of their words for free. It’s a bad attitude, and plain ignorance about how this whole e-book thing works.

Sampling should be 20-25% minimum. After spending the time it takes to read a quarter of the way through your book, there is a far greater chance of the reader shelling out to finish the rest of it. And if you’re worried that after reading that much they won’t want to pay for the rest because they’ll have realized your book isn’t worth the time or money, and you’d rather pocket their cash before they find out you aren’t that good of a writer, then clearly you’ve ignored the lesson in point number 1.

And you’re kind of dishonest.

4. Laziness

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m not perfect. (But I had you fooled there for a while, right?) I nearly ruined my chances of selling e-books in all but one retail channel because I was guilty of this very sin: laziness.

Back in March of this year, I came to e-book publication almost accidentally. My attention was focused on Createspace and I only decided to self-publish e-books because I had nothing to do while I waited for the paperback proof copy to arrive, and because… well, why not? The formatting drove me crazy and by the it was done – and Smashwords had okayed my entry into the Premium Catalogue – I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the whole operation. I downloaded a copy to my mother’s Kindle, and checked the PDF version Smashwords had on sale. Both looked okay to me and so I turned my attention to shopping for a book launch outfit.

But I shouldn’t have. I’d failed to check the most popular e-book format, EPUB , which I discovered five months later had nearly 1,300 pages, or one for each paragraph. A glitch in MS Word for Mac had inserted a page break at each return. By my estimates, around 50 people had purchased the ebook only to find it in this way, and one had left a review saying as much on Barnes and Noble’s e-book store. Disaster. I re-did the formatting, re-uploaded the book and the lovely reader edited his review after I sent him a voucher for a free download, but I was lucky.

This could all have been avoided by doing just the thing Mark advised in the Smashwords instructions: download a free copy of Adobe’s Digital Editions and your own book in EPUB format, and check that everything is all right. As I said above, if only more people would listen to him.

5. False expectation and impatience

I would actually split these into two different secrets, because false expectation is really just plain old craziness (like those hopeless idiots on X-Factor who think they’ll be the next Madonna when their voice sounds like a bag of nails that’s just been thrown in a wood chipper) and is incurable, whereas impatience is a different thing altogether, and it afflicts the sane. Moreover, it can be cured. Just wait longer.

E-book sales, I’ve found, are a lot like blogging. Success comes slowly but it’s important that you keep plugging away. So if your book only sells 3 copies the week of its release, don’t despair. Recently the Smashwords blog highlighted the success of Brian S. Pratt, a fantasy author who has earned $25,000 from sales across Smashwords’ retail channels this quarter. He earned $18,000 last quarter and his projected Smashwords sales in 2011 will earn him a cool $100,000.

But in his first quarter, back at the beginning of 2009? He made $7.82.

6. Play the blame game

Back when I started this whole self-publishing adventure, I encountered an individual who was as bitter about Createspace as Steve Brookstein is about Simon Cowell. He had published a book about enchanted turtles or something, slapped a cover on it that looked like a nightmare I once had after drinking a shot called a Brain Hemorrhage and was charging nearly $20 for a slim paperback that if the back cover and table of contents was anything to go by, was riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes, printed in a font too large for a large print edition and was formatted by a version of MS Word ’97 on the fritz. It had sold one copy, presumably to himself. But his worst crime was that he was blaming Createspace for his book’s failure.

“They’re doing nothing to sell it,” he complained to me. Um.. yes, they are actually. They’ve listed it on the world’s biggest online book store, haven’t they? And should someone ever order a copy, they’ll print it, pack it and ship it out for you. You, dear deluded author, are the one whose doing nothing to sell your book.

Mark Coker says that, ‘Almost once per month, like clockwork, I’ll get an angry email from an author complaining they haven’t sold a single copy through Smashwords or any of our retailers, and they’ll threaten to unpublish their book and remove it from distribution if we don’t do something about it.’

They may as well unpublish their book, because acting like this is the best way not to sell any.

7. Distrust partners

A small corner of self-publishing only exists because certain authors are paranoid that Big, Bad Publishing is out to get them. (I call it The Crazy Corner, and try to stay away.) Yeah, it’s all a big conspiracy against you and your 504,000-word novel set in Sumerian times but also in the Fifties because there’s a time machine hidden in the remains of the spaceship that built the Nazca lines in Peru which your protagonist (whom you only ever refer to as “the protagonist” – never “my main character” or “Shakira”) discovers while out befriending a race of talkative petunias known as The Gimpalores, isn’t it? All the agents are in bed with the publishers who are having phone sex with Amazon while Barnes and Noble are on the other line, and anyway they’re only interested in books about post-apocalyptic vampires written by James Patterson’s minions.

Sure.

This paranoia gets carried over to the self-publishing world when the writer is left with no choice but to produce Shakira and The Gimpalores him or herself. Bad sales figures? Smashwords must be hiding them, because you know loads of people are buying it. Over three thousand samples downloaded, but only one sold? Smashwords must be pocketing the other sales, because that ratio is just not possible. Who wouldn’t love your book after reading even a page of it? Smashwords says your book isn’t good enough for Premium Distribution. Are they discriminating against the gimpalore race? They must be. There can’t be another reason. Your know your mother bought your book from B&N this morning but it’s been a whole four hours and the sale still hasn’t shown up on your Smashwords dashboard. Call the police!

There are two ways to counteract this type of behavior:

  1. READ THE SMALL PRINT. You will then see how often Smashwords or Createspace or whoever you’re threatening with legal action updates its sales data – clue: not in real time – and how often they pay.
  2. TAKE MEDICATION. See a certified mental health professional for this.

Was all that a little bit too much doom and gloom this close to Christmas?

If so, you can read my post What do self-publishing success stories have in common? or Mark’s own brilliant The 7 Secrets to E-Book Publishing Success, required reading for any self-publisher, be it of the print or e-book variety.

Read all my e-book related posts.

(Thanks to Chris Whitehead for the image in this post.)

A Crafty Catherine Christmas: Tropical Trees

I spent one Christmas in Florida and while I was really lucky to experience all the Christmassy stuff Disney World has to offer (that it does so well – LOVE Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party!) putting up a Christmas tree decorated in traditional gold, green and red seems a bit weird when it’s ninety degrees and humid outside.

But I’ve found the perfect solution. In October during our crazy 3-city US trip, Eva and I went to visit her relatives in Venice Beach, Florida. There, Siegrid showed us the most amazing handcrafted thing I have ever seen: a Florida Christmas tree!

Decorated in tropical colors with miniature flip-flops, seashells and cocktail umbrellas, this little tree is truly the perfect solution to decorating homes that are hotter outside then in. Should I ever be lucky enough to live in Florida, I know I’ll be doing a full-sized version of this out by my pool…

Read all my crafty Christmas posts here.

Obsessed! Amazon Adds BookScan Data

The brains behind Amazon Author Central have been doing a lot of thinking lately. Not only have they added sparkly new features like U.S. Nielsen BookScan data (“Wow – someone in Chattanooga, Tennessee bought my book!”) but they’ve also added a sales rank tracking feature that pretty much obliterates the need for you check NovelRank every five minutes. Now you can just obsessively visit your Amazon Author page instead…

As this notice from Amazon Author Central breathlessly explains:

“We’re happy to announce that – for the first time ever – authors can see weekly sales trends of their print books as reported by Nielsen BookScan. On the new Sales Info tab you can view your print book sales geographically, as well as by paperback or hardcover.  These features are on the same page as the existing Amazon Bestsellers Rank History so that you can view all your sales-related activity in one place. Note that BookScan doesn’t report every book sold. Though it’s still widely regarded as the industry standard for tracking print book sales. And now, through Author Central, you have access to this data for free. Check out Sales by Geography and Sales by Week now!”

Here’s what it looks like. In the last 4 weeks, Mousetrapped has sold 23 paperback copies from Amazon.com and now I can see exactly from where those copies were bought. Confusingly, the biggest buyer appears to be the state of New York. What’s that all about? And how come the next three biggest sales areas – Columbus, Ohio, Los Angeles, California and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose – each account for 2 sales each? Were both copies bought by the same person? Or did one person buy one and then tell a friend about it, who also went and bought one? Can’t you see how this could quickly come become an obsession?

It’s sales rank tracker doesn’t look exactly like Novel Rank’s – although it should, because Novel Rank’s works just fine – but you can still get the basic data from the chart. This is Mousetrapped‘s Kindle edition’s sales rank since July 1st.

What perplexes me about this is the line ‘… out of over 400,000 books in the Kindle store.” 400,000? Which 400,000 are they talking about, seeing as the US Kindle store claims on every Kindle listing to stock 750,000 books? Perhaps it’s the paid Kindle store, or the other 350,000 books haven’t sold a copy yet and thus don’t have a sales rank. I couldn’t find anything in the FAQ section that answered my question.

All in all I’m finding this mildly interesting, but as a self-published author who sells online, I can see exactly how many copies I’ve sold at any given time, and because my books are not in stores, these numbers will always match the BookScan data – they’re one and the same. None of this is news to me really, except for maybe the geographical data, but what use is that? I haven’t thought of one yet.

However I gather this is new information for “properly” published authors (that’s my term and I’m sticking to it, before the arrows start coming my way) who, if they wanted this information before now, had to pay for it as far as I know. So it’s A Good Thing.