Operation New Edition: A New Cover Story

One thing I was always really proud of about Mousetrapped was its cover. (See gigantic front cover pic in sidebar. This ->->-> way and down a bit.) Covers are always the one place self-published – or self-printed – books make sure to let themselves down, and as such a dedicated lover of books myself there was no way I was letting my self-printed book go down the same route.

After seeing the horrors that Createspace’s cover creation “wizard” produced, I knew I had to make my own. So I had a think about it, played around with some mock-ups in MS Word and then had a graphic designer translate my efforts into an even better PDF, the format Createspace accept. You can read about my original cover story and see the designs that fell by the wayside here.

The original back cover of Mousetrapped. Createspace add the barcode in the bottom right-hand corner.

I was happy with the back cover when I released Mousetrapped last March, but never completely so. It was mostly blank space – or blank blue space, anyway, as it had a background pic – which as I should know because I’m forever banging on about it, is nothing like the back cover of a ‘real’ book. But with the exception of the handful of people who wandered into Douglas Bookshop – the only brick-and-mortar place where Mousetrapped is for sale – most readers wouldn’t see the back cover until after they’d bought the book. As I’m a work-smarter-not-harder kind of gal, I decided to focus my energies on more important things.

(Like my book launch outfit.)

So I didn’t worry about it. But I did think I could’ve done it better, so I kept an eye out for ideas. Because that was why the back cover was the way it was: because I had no idea what to put on there, other than the blurb and the barcode.

First I noticed two different travel books I read towards the end of last year used postcards in their back cover designs, and very effectively. This had never occurred to me even though now it seems fairly obvious. So I made a mental note: incorporate a postcard. Then during my visit to Orlando last October I happened to take a lovely picture (if I do say so myself) of Downtown Disney at sunset. (A car park, but still!) With its palm trees in silhouette against a purple sky it would make the perfect background photograph, I thought. And since we were throwing in new pictures, why not put one of me in as well? One of me in Florida. One of me in Florida in 2006, when I was skinny. Perfect! Finally I did what actual cover designers do: I turned to stock image databases like iStock and ShutterStock, and found some stamps and airmail stickers – and a suitable postcard. Putting all those things together, I came up with this:

My Back Cover II mock-up, made in MS Word. This is a wholly unsuitable format for cover design but it can help self-publishing authors figure out what they want. The background image is set to ‘behind text’ and all the text is in text boxes set to ‘tight’ layout and ‘no fill’ so they appear to be invisible. It has its limits though: no matter what I tried I couldn’t angle the text in the postcard, for example.

I sent this to my cover designer, Andrew (who I’ll be telling you lots more about soon; he’s going to have some great offers for self-publishers), who figured out technical things like readability of text and scale and all that stuff that I hadn’t concerned myself with.

And so: are you ready for the new back cover?

Drum roll, please!

Ta-daaaa! The new Mousetrapped back cover. Click for larger.

I really, really like it. I love the way the front is all sunny and bright and day, and now the back is all sunset and twilight and night. I like how the back is now just as interesting – if not more interesting – than the front. I like how both sides have palm trees. And I love how it conveys the traveling theme of the book way better than a blank blue sky ever could.

Just to compare:

I’ve ordered a proof copy and am now waiting very impatiently to see it in the flesh.

(Or on paper. Or card. Oh, you know what I mean.)

Read all my Self-Printing: Operation New Edition posts.

The Time It Takes to Fall: A Different Perspective on Challenger

Twenty-five years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated in the skies above Florida’s Space Coast, killing all seven astronauts on board and any illusions anyone may have had about space flight being routine, or safe.

The cause – technically – was a rubber O-ring that failed to seal a joint at lift-off, allowing hot gases from inside the right Solid Rocket Booster (the slim white rockets that sit on either side of the Orbiter at launch) to leak out against the External Tank (the large, rust-colored tank the Shuttle hitches a ride on), eventually causing an unscheduled separation. With the stack heading spacewards at thousands of miles an hour, physics did the rest.

Black smoke escapes from Challenger’s compromised SRB seal at lift off.

The real cause, however, was the decision-making culture at NASA: levels and levels of managers meant that no one person had all the information, the technicians on the front lines felt uncomfortable voicing concerns to their administrative superiors and an ever-decreasing budget not only squeezed safety aside by itself, but made NASA eager to please their Cheque-Signer in Chief, President Ronald Reagan.

It was the culmination of all this that led to Challenger being launched that morning in January 1986, despite freezing temperatures at the pad and in spite of the efforts of engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who had built the SRBs, who had tried to stop the launch.

The STS-51-L crew of Challenger. Christa McAuliffe is in the back row, second from the left.

The loss of Challenger was made all the more tragic by the fact that Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, was onboard. I remember getting a jolt on my first visit to Kennedy Space Centre when I realized where I recognized the spectator stands from: footage of McAuliffe’s parents with their faces lifted towards the sky, watching the launch first with joy, then with confusion and, ultimately, horror.

The camera never left their faces. With their back to the launch pad, the camera operator may not have realized what was happening.

There are plenty of books about the Challenger disaster, the events proceeding it and the investigation after it. (The same investigation during which one of the most wonderful characters ever to grace science, Richard Feynman, dramatically demonstrated the O-ring problem by dropping a piece of one in a glass of iced water and then snapping it in two.) But for a different perspective and a wonderful read, I recommend Margaret Lazarus Dean’s novel, The Time It Takes to Fall.

“It is the early 1980s and America is in love with space. Growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, young Dolores Gray has it particularly bad: she dreams of becoming an astronaut. At school, Dolores finds herself caught between her desire for popularity and her secret friendship with the smartest and most unpopular boy in her class, whose father is NASA’s Director of Launch Safety. At home, discord begins to grow between her parents when her father’s job as a NASA technician is threatened. Looking for escape, Dolores loses herself in her scrapbook, where she files away newspaper articles about the astronauts and the shuttles, weather reports on launch scrubs and stories about her idol, Judith Resnik. Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven astronauts on board – including Judith Resnik. It is a moment that shakes America to its core, and nowhere is it more deeply felt than in Central Florida. Dolores becomes determined to reconstruct what went wrong, both in her parents’ marriage and at NASA, in the hope that she can save her father’s job and keep her family together. The Time It Takes to Fall is a coming-of-age novel that deftly weaves the story of one family’s drama into the larger picture of a touchstone event in American history. It is at once an intimate look at a young girl’s loss of innocence and a portrait of America’s loss of innocence – the end of an era that romanticized manned space flight and would never be the same again.”

I discovered this book in the stacks of my favorite Barnes and Noble in Orlando in 2007, the same year I finally realized my own life-long dream (all twenty-five years of it, at that stage) of witnessing a Space Shuttle launch – STS-120 that October. As I started reading it, I had that very rare pleasure of feeling as if I was reading a book written just for me. It’s a poignant read and an accomplished debut. The beauty of it is if you’re interested in Challenger and Florida’s Space Coast there’s plenty there for you, but if you’re not, the real life events, facts and figures are woven so delicately into the narrative that they never overshadow the story.

The Astronaut Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Centre.

I’ve always felt a connection with Challenger, even though in January 1986 I wasn’t yet four years old. I think it’s because documentaries and news reports about the disaster were probably my first introduction to the Space Shuttle and from there, the manned exploration of space. (And Space Camp!) Much, much later, I discovered a real connection: Challenger was delivered to Kennedy Space Centre, ready to be prepped for its first mission, on July 5, 1982 – the same day I was born.

Did the crew of Challenger die in vain? NASA changed drastically in its aftermath but yet in 2003, its shuttle mate Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. A hole in its wing, created by a suitcase-sized piece of foam that struck it during launch, had allowed lethally hot gases into one of its wheel wells.

The shuttle is on the doorstep of retirement; there are only a few launches left. Let’s just hope that whatever form the future of manned space exploration takes, it learns all the lessons that these tragedies can teach. And NASA does have an admirable safety record when you consider that out of all the NASA missions – from Mercury which began in 1959 through Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and then since 1981, the Space Shuttle – the Challenger and Columbia tragedies remain the space administration’s only loss of astronaut life during space flight.

The manned exploration of space will always present an inherent risk, but there is never a good reason to be reckless.

Read Dean’s blog, The Time It Takes to Blog. It hasn’t been updated in a while but there’s some really interesting space-related stuff on there. I decided to risk being mistaken for (or recognized as) a gushing fan, and emailed Margaret to see if she had any plans to write another novel. She IS working on another novel (although it’s not space-related) which is great news, because I think Dean is too good of a talent to just give us the one book. She also confirmed that The Time It Takes to Fall wasn’t published on this side of the pond, but look what I found: the paperback available on The Book Depository for just €8.10, and free worldwide delivery! So now you’ve no excuse. Honestly if you have even a passing interest in the Space Shuttle or Florida’s Space Coast, or you just want to read a really good book about coming-of-age and the American family, (or you enjoy Curtis Sittenfeld; I think they’re quite similar), then I highly recommend it.

Click here to read all my astronuts posts.

Click here to read all my books reviews.

Coffee Break: It’s Trenta Time!

You may have heard that Starbucks recently announced plans to introduce a new cup size, the Trenta. This comes fresh on the heels of news that the company, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is to change its famed ‘Siren’ logo into something sucky.

CREDIT: NationalPost.com

At a somewhat intimidating 930ml, the Trenta is 325ml more than Starbucks’ current biggest size, the Venti, and as Canada’s National Post were quick to point out with the graphic above, 30ml more than the average human stomach is designed to hold. Combine this with the fact that in all likelihood, your trenta cup will be holding something with caffeine in it (which speeds everything up, if you get my drift), you’ll be so busy running back and forth to the bathroom you won’t have time to finish it.

For now the trenta is only available in a small number of US states, and only for iced beverages. This is a good thing as first of all, I’m trying to be on a diet and, second of all, how would nearly a liter of regular coffee stay hot enough long enough for you to drink it?

I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve always done: order a venti latte but without any foam. (A “wet” latte in Starbucks lingo. Don’t get me started…) This way, you get a lot more coffee and you get to hang around long enough to drink it. And drink it hot.

Click here to read all my coffee breaks.

A Year in the Life of a Book

I’ve mentioned before AliMcNamara’s video blogs which chronicled her adventures as a debut author, covering everything from her writing room to delivery of her proof copies to her book’s launch (From Notting Hill With LoveActually, which I reviewed here). Now Miranda Dickinson, author of Fairytale of New York and and Welcome to My World, has made a New Year’s resolution to video blog once a week for year about the long process of writing, publishing and promoting a book.

Miranda explains:

“I’ve set myself the challenge this year to post a video blog every week for 52 weeks, to show a year in the life of a book. The video diary will follow the progress of It Started With a Kiss, from first draft, through editing stages, proofing, cover design, publicity, launch and beyond… I’m holding nothing back, so the good and not-so-good bits of taking a story from an initial idea to published novel will all be there for you to see.”

I think this is a great idea, and I love the videos Miranda has made already. The one below is actually Week 2 in which Miranda talks about writing a first draft, engagement rings and hats. The publishing process is always such a mystery for those of us aspiring to publication so I’m really looking forward to hearing about her adventures.

(It also doesn’t hurt that she’s pretty funny too.)

I found Miranda and her vlogs via the wonderful Chick Lit Reviews. Find out more and check out the videos on Miranda’s lovely blog, Coffee and Roses.

6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews

oldpost

Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.

But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.

Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.

Yes, I am normally dressed in evening wear and wearing (what was) a full face of make-up when crying over bad reviews. Who isn’t?

What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.

And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.

How can this horrible feeling be avoided?

  1. Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
  2. Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
  3. Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
  4. Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
  5. Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
  6. If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”

On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.

(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)

Self-Printing: Operation New Edition

You may have already heard that I’m doing a new and hopefully improved edition of Mousetrapped and if you haven’t – well, you have now.

This is going to be a very interesting experiment. While it’s super easy to update an e-book – you just upload a new file – updating a Createspace paperback – especially when you want the new version to exist separately from the original one – is another kettle of fish entirely. Producing the thing will be easier than ever thanks to Createspace’s new, simpler user interface and the fact that this time round I have previous experience, but organizing its selling is bound to prove a bit of a headache.

The Mysterious Pro-Plan

Here’s the thing that might not be explicitly clear to those of you lucky enough to not have any experience of Createspace: when you pay your $39 to upgrade your book to their ‘Pro’ distribution plan, you have no guarantee that it’s going to end up on, say, Amazon.co.uk or The Book Depository. You don’t really know where it’s going to end up, only that it will ‘be available’ to a wider distribution network than just Amazon.com. (You can read their completely information-free Pro Plan explanation here.) I’m guessing this is because it’s up to the retailer and not Createspace, and maybe a little bit down to chance (or sales), and therefore they can’t promise anything to anyone except for the promise of opportunity.

I was very lucky. Mousetrapped‘s paperback edition is currently sticking its head up in all sorts of places but most of my sales come from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. When you publish with CS you’re guaranteed the .com but what will I do if I don’t reappear on .co.uk? I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The other thing is that wherever I do appear, Mousetrapped will have a whole new listing because it will be a whole new book, technically speaking. I’ll lose data like ‘Customers Also Bought’ and ‘Customers Ultimately Buy’ and I’ll lose my reviews, although I think if I e-mail Amazon I can get my old reviews link to my new edition, and hopefully get my Kindle edition linked to the newer version of the paperback…

Oh boy.

I feel a headache coming on already.

What Are We Changing?

The aim of this game is to make Mousetrapped as perfect as possible so that after this I can forget all about it other than banking the cheques once a month, safe in the knowledge that there is no typo I can eliminate, no description I can make clearer and no poison-pen reviewer I can agree with on any point. I’m taking everything I’ve learned in the last year or so – from other self-publishers, from reviews, from traditionally published books – and using it to what I hope will be my advantage.

Changes will include:

Both formats

  • Three ‘Praise for…’ pages at the very beginning showcasing some of Mousetrapped‘s reviews. I’m doing this for a number of reasons. First, it makes it look more like a real book. Second, if it’s on a shelf or a friend’s coffee table, I believe these pages might sway the undecided into picking it up and starting to read. Thirdly, I’ve always thought that reading positive reviews at the beginning of a book – and I do always read them, if they’re there – sets me up to like the book in some subliminal, subconscious way and hey, I’ll try anything. Finally, when someone takes a moment to review my book on Amazon and basically says it was an offense to their eyes, I can quickly pick up the nearest copy and remind myself that someone liked it.
  • A new version of the ‘In God We Trust’ chapter which previously was a bit lecture-like and whose tone didn’t sit well with the rest of the book. Thanks to everyone who participated in my little focus group, by the way. You rock.
  • A paragraph’s expansion on the infamous limo ride to the airport story as not one but two reviewers claimed that they wanted to know more about that story – which, they said, they were ‘teased with’ – and less about such mind numbing events as man leaving the gravitational bounds of earth and looking back on his own planet from another celestial body for the first time (and in the sixties) and people blasting off on a rocket ship to a human base in space. I did this not to appease them but to the prove that if they think me catching a ride with my friend to the airport who happens to be a limo driver is more interesting than the manned exploration of space, then I can’t help them. Maybe no one can.
  • An author’s note. You can read it here if you’re so inclined.
  • No errors. There were a few typos, a couple of misspellings and one place where I put ‘it’ instead of ‘if’ that all needed to be rectified. Side note: I do mention the hotel by its real name at one point in the book, but it’s in relation to the portfolio of its architect who was also involved in a building in Celebration. This is intentional and not a mistake. So there.
  • Links to More Mousetrapped. So if they want more, they can have it. You can too – here.

E-book edition only

  • Acknowledgments added. When I did the e-book first time round I took out everything unnecessary to make the formatting easier for myself, and that included the Acknowledgements. But hey, it’s the Acknowledgments. It’s like a paragraph and a heading. Back in you go!
  • Further Reading list added. For the same reason.

Paperback edition only

  • A new IBSN. Because this is a second edition of Mousetrapped and not just a slight amendment to its original edition, it needs a new ISBN. Once again I have spat on the altar of the Self-Publishing Evangelists and taken up Createspace on their offer of a few ISBN, which is 978-1456559816.
  • A new back cover which I’m really excited about. Perhaps abnormally so. The existing back cover  is fine – it was my idea, after all! – but I’ve always felt that it looked a tad self-published, and it never competed with its much better front cover, which I’ve always felt looked damn fine. Wanna know what’s going on the new back cover? Well, you’ll just have to watch this space.
  • Table of contents removed. Because why do we need them? I think I just liked seeing all my clever chapter headings in one place, but that novelty wore off quick…
  • Photographs! The exclamation mark should be your clue that this is what I’m most excited about. Nine of my favorite photographs from my time in Orlando, in black and white and printed on the same cream paper as the rest of the book. I haven’t seen a proof yet so I’m not sure how this will turn out, but I have it on two good authorities that it’ll look okay: a blog book I had Createspace make me for private use a while back (the photos were black and white and printed on their standard white paper; they looked fine) and a Celebration book I have where black and white photos are slotted in amongst the text instead of on glossy photo pages in the middle (mine are going in the middle, but on the standard page). I always prefer my non-fiction books to have photographs, so let’s see how they end up looking in mine.

So here I am flailing about in the magical world of POD and there you are coming along with me for the ride.

It’s like January 2009 all over again.

Click here to read all my self-printing posts.

Click here to read more about Mousetrapped.

Friday Funny: Fancy Vittles with Maeve Higgins

Maeve Higgins is a very funny lady from Cork (where I’m from) who kept me company in autumn 2009 with her hilarious sketch show/cookery program/archival footage clips, Fancy Vittles, while I was living by the seaside and making do with three fuzzy channels. Watch in the clip above as Maeve chops vegetables with her sister while simultaneously relating to us the story of a shock break-up.

Fun fact: I have been told several times that I sound like her, including during the one time I was on the radio and someone sent in a text message saying that I had ‘a lovely smiley voice like Maeve Higgins’. Indeed. I’m pretty sure this is because to outsiders everyone from Cork sounds the same.

(You can listen to my radio interview and judge for yourself, if you are so inclined.)