Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ectoplasm, Storm Lull and Waiting

The money had left my bank account, the contract signed, I was now committed to self-publishing. Hang on a moment, I'm not an imprint or a press. Okay then, I'm having my book published, but not in a way most people understand it to mean. I haven't been scouted and signed any book deal. I'm paying a publisher to provide a publishing service. This nomenculture is proving a touch tricky. But I'll need to work out what I'm going to call it when the time comes. I'll let you know what I settled on, via somebody else's blog, further along the journey when we catch up to real time.

The first step was easy to figure out. Legends Press had asked for the MS in electronic form so they could send it to the typesetters. A realisation that what I sent them would be the finished print version, sent me off into a final, final line edit (part 74). Found a few errors, but nothing too sinister. And importantly, despite being jaded by having read over it so many times, the book still seemed fresh and alive with its initial energy to me. But then enter my first anxiety. What format to send the MS? Hard copy submissions to agents specify line spacing and one-sided pages, but they tend to leave font choice and size to the writer. Although the MS would be reset by typesetters, still there were probably in-house standards they called for in the presentation of the MS. As I had undertaken the task over a long Bank Holiday weekend, I wouldn't be able to raise Legends to ask them. No panic, I went on to a forum at You Write and conducted a straw poll of my fellow writers. Times New Roman 11 or 12 point was the consensus and I duly converted my helvetica and saw the pagination drop by about 30 pages. This was the first crash diet of two that the demands of printing brings about to your text. But it's nothing compared to the second one, more of which anon.

Sent e-mail with attached MS and then sat back. I'm told mainstream publishing can take between 18 and 24 months, with the advance book lists and printing turnaround times. Self-publishing varies, but the prospect of 10-12 weeks by comparison makes it seem very immediate. Still, what to do next? Idle hands make for the devil's work. The devil's work huh...? Must mean marketing. Now I knew absolutely nothing about marketing. For years I had regarded myself as 'an artiste daaaarling', someone who could not possibly dirty his hands with corrupting commercial concerns. Well I knew as I was now solely responsible for sales, that attitude could no longer be maintained.

Now we're forever being urged in this brave new world of communications, to network socially. Where once we used to got to do's and events and try and work the room, now we can do it all hiding behind an avatar and a name that wouldn't look out of place across a CB channel. I have a blog other than this one. Calling it a blog is a bit of a misnomer really. Spasmodically I posted completely uncontextualised bits of my work. From different novels. Not in any order. Occasionally I commented on some news story that caught my eye. But other than that I couldn't really see the point. The reason I write fiction is cos I can't be doing with keeping a journal, so why would I start one online? Nor did I want to detail my creative process that led me to the final text as appeared up on the blog. That was too much navel gazing to my mind. Obviously this blog suggests I have had a bit of a damascus conversion. Again, all in good time we'll get to that.

Okay, a half-hearted blog read by about 4 people wasn't really going to scoop the sales. Back to the forum bush telegraph. Someone posted something about YouTube. I went to take a squint, having studiously avoided all things grainy, downloaded from TV adverts and Pop Idol. First exemplar was a children's book author (all these examples are from self-published authors). He voicedover his book, while all that you had to look on screen was the front cover and one other picture presumably from inside. Second was a high production value vid composed of animated stills, publicising a historical novel about the Romans. So there were Roman Busts revolving and flames burning and a musical soundtrack. Striking, but amazingly the writer didn't give a sample of the writing either on screen in print, or voiced over. A third was a writer sat in his bedroom reading from a MS in hand (I have seen a proper published author do exactly the same on Amazon).

Therefore what conclusions can be drawn? Firstly, remember this is the YouTube generation. They consume their visual content (and their music for that matter) very differently to our generations. That is, paunchy middle aged blokes reading from hand, a book cover that doesn't move and a repeated and somewhat contextless set of animations floating in mid screen, do not make for exciting viewing. IMhO, you have to give them the equivalent of what a pop video gives to the song it is made to promote. The Roman even neglected the 'pop song' it was supposed to promote sales of, by not having a sample of the text. So conclusion 1, it has to be visual, you have to give the viewer something to look at that complements and augments the words. Conclusion 2, one I chose to ignore intially, is that you can't make it too long. Apart from the fact that YouTube limit you to 10 minutes a video anyway, vocalised words without the viewer having the text in their hand are quite hard to pick up in their entirety. Missing words might fracture the narrative sense and lose your audience to go back to Susan Doyle. So don't over do the length of what you put on your vid. And remember, the words are what you are trying to sell. The rest are there to entice the viewer and draw them into listening to the words.

I needed to experiment never having been a video star before. I chose 5 various bits of text that were from works other than the novel itself. Some were short stories, some were snippets from other novels. One was a poem. Having an applemac, I had a built-in camera mounted in the laptop's lid. Okay, so what to do visually? Something that might make it stand out from the crowd. I decided on covering up my identity, be it balaclava, hoody, bandages or a stocking over my head. Each had a justification within the piece I was reading, but I was mainly after linking them thematically on YouTube; ie that nutter reading out literature with his face all covered up. I called the series "Guerilla Literature" and away I went. Each one was filmed in a single take as I had no means of editing beyond the opening and closing. I didn't want the MS in hand while I was reading, so I had it in the bottom corner of the screen, which means if you look closely my eyes aren't to camera, but squinting off to the left. Additionally, there is the slightest of pauses as I scroll through the MS and have to refocus. Also I had to be fairly close to the camera, since I am short-sighted and the various head coverings meant my glasses didn't sit flush on my face. Ah the technical problems to be overcome!

So, 20 minutes to prepare the script visually with colour-coded prompts for me acting it out and positioning it on the mac so I could still operate imovie. 10 minutes to sort out facial costume and maybe an appropriate slogan T-shirt. 10 minutes with the camera rolling. 15 minutes to play back and crop the lead in and lead out. About 4 bloody hours uploading to YouTube. But that was it. That's all it took. Suddenly I'm a film-maker, doing a video a week, it was that simple. I've garnered about 575 views across the various vids, which is a lot more than reads they may have got on the peer review online writing sites. Not exactly viral, but a decent enough bedrock.

Next I started to trawl through the novel itself to decide which bits to commit to vids. This time I knew I would seek to engage YouTube's visual language more directly. No blokes reading to camera (nor just to the left of it). I would get a professional actress to voiceover. She wouldn't therefore have to learn the text since she would be off screen. And each piece would be storyboarded for hand manipulated props that would tell a visual story just like a pop video. Since I would be manipulating the props, I needed someone to film it for me. So that's 2 people I'm committed to paying for their time. As of today, I think I've at least sorted the cameraman, but it's taken an inordinate amount of time and I'm behind schedule. I kind of think it doesn't matter, since the initial release of the book will be me badgering friends and family via personal e-mail and trying to get some press by sending out free copies with press releases. The YouTube campaign can come as a second wave. I've scoured flea markets and e-bay for the props. Having resisted joining up to e-bay until the book forced my hand, I proceeded to have a flame war with a seller for supplying me the wrong thing. We were arguing about £8 worth of goods.

So if you know where I can get an imitation gingham tablecloth made from paper, or some realistic but not real butterflies that I can mount on corks, I'd be very grateful. Now I have to get hold of my actress. Shouldn't be too hard seeing as I used to be a playwright.

Oh look, an e-mail from Legends Press (by now it's July). On Saturday I'll tell you what it contained.

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