Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 4

Subtitle: the ongoing chronicle of one muppet’s struggle with promoting. Yes, it’s still a struggle. Yes, I’m still a muppet when it comes to marketing.

In earlier instalments, I said I was going to try giving away one of my books as a means of building my mailing list. Well, this is what happened.

On 7th November 2017, I submitted my short dark fantasy novel The Elevator to Instafreebie. I had intended to make joining my mailing list mandatory in return for downloading the book, but Instafreebie cautioned against doing so and I listened. Readers could download the book and had the option, not requirement, of subscribing to my list. I mentioned the availability of the freebie on social media and sat back to see what happened.

You can probably guess. By 17th November, 16 people had taken advantage of the free book, but only two of them elected to join my mailing list (and one of them was already on it).

Hmm. My mailing list numbers, already pitifully low (as in, fewer than 20 subscribers—bless each and every one), had swollen by a grand total of one. I know that I hadn’t given it long, but clearly I already needed to rethink.

I changed the terms of the giveaway on Instafreebie to make it mandatory for readers to subscribe to my mailing list. This meant upgrading my account to the paid version. $20 a month was $20 more than I wanted to spend on building my mailing list, but I figured that it would be worth it, provided the tactic worked—I was still hung up on the idea that an independent author needs a large mailing list to stand any chance of being successful. Then I looked out for cross-promotions I could join.

When readers join my mailing list, I promise that I won’t share their e-mail addresses with anybody else; by the same token, I’m not interested in receiving e-mail addresses of people who haven’t specifically opted to subscribe to my list. So any promotion that involved authors exchanging lists was out.

I applied to join a promotion that ran in December. It consisted of a landing page containing details of all contributing authors’ books and links to where readers could obtain a free copy. I offered The Elevator and included the Instafreebie link. It worked quite well—I gained over 200 new subscribers.

Then I hit a slight snag. One of the conditions of taking part in the promotion was to send an e-mail to my list with details of the promotion. Fair enough, but I didn’t send the e-mail until quite a few days into the promotion, by which time my list had grown appreciably. So I sent an e-mail to readers who, in the main, had joined my list through a giveaway, to tell them about that giveaway. No wonder some readers promptly unsubscribed. Yeah, I’m a muppet with a capital M.

In January, I was ready to publish Jack’s Tale, the sequel to The Elevator. Seemed like a good time to test the value of having a mailing list. I uploaded the book for preorder and discounted the preorder price to $0.99. Then I sent an e-mail to my list with a link to the preorder. My list by then had 272 subscribers, of which 13 promptly unsubscribed. By the time Jack’s Tale was published a week later, it had a total of 17 preorders.

A month later, I was ready to publish the final book in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I again discounted the preorder to $0.99 and e-mailed my list. The number of subscribers had by that point crept back up to 274. A week or so later, when the book was published, it had a grand total of 7 preorders.

Hmmm (once more with feeling). Quite honestly, I would have been disappointed with those numbers without a mailing list.

I persevered and joined a few more cross-promotions. As of now (early November 2018), my list has 589 subscribers. That’s a massive improvement on a year ago, but I’m nevertheless a little despondent. I can’t help but wonder whether giving away all those books and paying those monthly fees were worth it. The last promotion I joined was in September and I’ve resolved, for now, not to take part in another.

Around 750 copies of The Elevator were downloaded through these cross-promotions, but I have grown heartily fed up of giving the book away. Although the promotions have been useful in swelling the numbers on my list, which was the main reason for taking part, they seem to have done nothing at all for the book or sequels, which was the secondary reason. No reviews, little sell-through, no messages on Facebook or elsewhere from excited readers.

Of course, as I fully recognise, this could be because the first book isn’t grabbing readers sufficiently that they want to read the sequels. It’s certainly an unusual tale, not exactly mainstream, not a lot like anything else that’s out there. While some might view that as a book’s strength, perhaps it’s more likely to be its downfall.

It could also mean that since they acquired it for nothing, the book is sitting lost amidst hundreds of other books these readers acquired through other giveaways. Many of them might never get around to reading it. Gifting books as a promotional tactic, it seems to me, has reached saturation point.

This leads me to a proposition, an extremely subjective one, it has to be acknowledged:

Proposition 4: In my experience, the value of giving away books has diminished to the point where its worth as a marketing tool is, at best, doubtful.

I haven’t mailed my list about a new release since February. Mainly because I parted company with my publisher in March and spent the next few months revising and producing and releasing my own versions of my e-books and paperbacks, writing new stuff was forced to take a back seat. I’m also in the process of producing my first audiobook and starting up a proofreading business. It might be another few months before I’m ready to release something new.

It’s unlikely that much interest will be generated by my e-mail notifying subscribers of the new release. If anything, the unsubscribe rate will probably rocket since many subscribers will have forgotten they signed up and will have no idea who this strange person is e-mailing them. The experts say that it’s a good thing to have people unsubscribe if they were only there in the first place in expectation of receiving further free books. They say a list should be nurtured, meaning informative e-mails should be sent regularly so that you remain, if not at the forefront of your subscribers’ thoughts, at least visible to them. This comes back to the sort of person you are. If, like me, you can’t stand the thought of sending people e-mails unless it’s to tell them about a promotion or new release, not a lot of nurturing is likely to occur.

I’m well aware the vast majority of subscribers to my list are there because I offered them a free book. Most will have little or no knowledge of my work; most will be, at best, indifferent to my work because they’ve never read anything I’ve written. I’ve given them the expectation of receiving free books from me. Why the heck should I now expect them to part with a dollar to preorder my new release?

Okay, that question was largely rhetorical, but I’ll answer it anyway. I don’t expect them to buy my work. If most of them remain on my list on receiving my next e-mail, I’ll be grateful. Of course, that won’t stop me from hoping they’ll head on over to Amazon and put in their preorder, but I shan’t hold my breath. And that’s not a criticism of the subscribers who joined up through the promotions. I’m glad to have them on my list—it would remain pitifully small without them. It’s merely a recognition of the reality of the situation. And confirms my constant assertion.

When it comes to marketing, I’m a complete muppet.

That’s enough about mailing lists. Next time, I’ll talk about some other area of marketing I’m hopeless at. Or, who knows, there might be mention of something that actually seems to be working. Till Part 5…

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.

This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.

A Baltic Odyssey

According to our local guide, Alexander Pushkin is to the Russian people what William Shakespeare is to us Brits. Although born in Moscow, he has strong associations with St Petersburg, which happened to be one of the ports of call on our cruise around the Baltic Sea.

We enjoy cruising and usually choose the Mediterranean for the sunshine. Occasionally, though, we opt to go north and have cruised to the Norwegian fjords and the Arctic Circle. This Baltic trip attracted us for the variety of ports in six countries we’d never before visited.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy post; it’s more an excuse to say a little bit about the cruise and show a few photos. But, to obey my self-imposed rules about what I post on this site, I have to include a link, no matter how tenuous, to reading or writing. Thus, Pushkin. I regret to admit that I haven’t read anything by him and, honestly, will probably never do, though at least he is now on my reading radar.

Anyway, the ports. My favourite? Based on what we did there and the sheer beauty of the place, it has to be Tallinn in Estonia. Here’s a view of the city—the black-domed church above is also in Tallinn.

Copenhagen is probably a close second. Once home, of course, to Hans Christian Andersen (another writing link; go, me), whose association is commemorated, amongst other things, by the statue of the Little Mermaid.

Riga (Latvia) is also beautiful; Skagen (Denmark) is chocolate-box quaint; Helsinki (Finland) gave the impression of being unfinished, there was so much construction work going on, though is still lovely; Kiel (Germany) is interesting, though a little strange (they have a park called Hiroshima Park, which contains a statue of Bismark). The port that made the deepest impression, for not necessarily all the right reasons, was St Petersburg, the city of many names.

Our first sight of Russia was underwhelming, sinister almost: row upon row of ugly concrete apartment blocks poking from the mist. We passed many more on our coach ride into the city centre, a lot of them in a state of disrepair. It was grim, a dystopia, Orwell’s vision of the future brought to life.

Then the sun burned away the fog and revealed a city of stunning contrasts. Fairytale churches and cathedrals; glistening gold-domed towers and spires; forbidding, official-looking buildings; imposing monuments. The square behind the Winter Palace, said our guide, is larger than Red Square in Moscow.

If you ever visit St Petersburg, take a tour around the Hermitage Museum. Formerly a palace complex of the Tsars, it has been preserved in much the same state as it was in 1917 when the city was known as Petrograd, the Romanovs held power (until the abdication of Nicholas II in February) and the October Revolution was signalled by a blank shot from the battle cruiser Aurora (coincidentally, the same name as the ship in which we had cruised into St Petersburg). Here are snaps of them both.

Apparently, if you were to spend 30 seconds viewing every single exhibit the museum holds, it would take you around eleven years to see them all.

We spent a few hours there and barely scratched the surface.

It was a jaw-dropping tour, marvelling at the lavish opulence—I’ve never seen so many grand chandeliers and ornately decorated ceilings, so many paintings outside of a specialist gallery by masters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt, more gold (I imagine) than even the Vatican—while privately thinking it was little wonder there was so much discontent among the masses to have such riches in the midst of what must have been at that time severe deprivation.

St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) is also famous for the failed siege by Germany in World War II. This is the hotel where Hitler planned to host a dinner to celebrate his conquest. He apparently even went as far as having invitations printed with only the date left blank.

We only spent hours at a stretch in these ports, enough to gain a flavour. But, without exception, the places we visited were captivating. If you’re ever wondering whether a trip to the Baltics is worthwhile, I’d say, resoundingly, yes.

To finish, a snap of me supping a stein of locally brewed beer in Kiel. These things have to be done. Cheers!

 

(Mis)Adventures in Publishing Paperbacks

This is going to be a lengthy post. It’s primarily aimed at writers considering publishing their own paperbacks, who don’t know where to start. I thought about cutting it into two or three smaller posts, but that wouldn’t be so helpful if you have to wait weeks for the next part and have to scroll between posts to get all the information you might need. (You can, though, skip this introductory bit by scrolling down to the sub-headings—I won’t be cross.)

In late March 2018, I parted company with the small press publisher I’d been with since April 2013. Although I’d been wanting to go my own way for a while, it happened a little unexpectedly.

The publisher had taken care of the paperback editions of my books—it was one of the main reasons I’d signed with it in the first place—so I’d never had to worry about learning how to produce my own.

Before worrying now, I concentrated on publishing my own versions of my e-books, taking the opportunity to revise each book and using Canva for my covers. (Canva is a website where you can design your own banners, ads and book covers at little or no cost. It’s fine for e-book covers; not so much for the greater complexities and resolution required for paperbacks.)

By the end of April, that was done and I could turn my attention to the paperbacks. That was when it hit me that, although I knew enough to have a general idea of what I needed to do, I was completely clueless about the detail. There were various issues to consider.

For the benefit of anyone who might be considering publishing their own paperbacks, who is as bewildered as I was, I’ll summarise these issues under sub-headings for ease of reference. And this is the potted version—over the ensuing weeks, I was to negotiate learning curves so steep I could have done with grappling hooks. Some of these things took me days to work out.

By the way, I’m not claiming this is the only or best or recommended way to publish paperbacks. It’s merely what I did—your mileage may vary.

Who to publish with?
There’s a growing school of thought that CreateSpace, much loved by the indie community, is being deliberately wound down by Amazon in favour of its in-house kdp. kdp was, and I believe still is, in beta and did not, when I was making these deliberations, offer wide distribution (though it does now). Anyway, I decided to publish with kdp for distribution through Amazon only and Ingram Spark for wide distribution, i.e. everywhere else.

Having made that decision, I needed to move quickly. Ingram charges a fee ($49 last I looked) for each title uploaded, but was running a free promotion until the end of June. Since I had six paperbacks to publish, that would mean a saving of almost $300, provided I got my skates on.

ISBNs
International Standard Book Numbers—a unique identifying number for each edition of a book. Exceptionally, an e-book edition doesn’t normally require its own ISBN, although some retailers (such as Google Play) assign their own to any e-book published through them that doesn’t have one.

I believe that kdp, like CreateSpace, will assign an ISBN for paperbacks published on its platform, but that ISBN can’t be used elsewhere so it would have been necessary to pay for Ingram to assign one.

Since I was going to have to pay for ISBNs no matter what, and I didn’t particularly want two versions of the same book with different ISBNs, I decided I would obtain my own.

A little research informed me that ISBNs can only be acquired in your native country by the agency charged with (and gleefully charging for) being guardians of the sacred numbers. In the UK, that’s Nielsen. (In the US, the agency is called Bowker. Not sure about elsewhere.) I have heard that in Canada ISBNs can be acquired free by Canadian citizens. Lucky them. In the UK, you have to buy them and they come at a fairly hefty price.

They can be purchased in the UK singly or in batches of ten or a hundred. Hmm. I had six paperbacks to publish by the end of June. I have many more novels I want to write. I knew I would be looking into audiobooks when the paperbacks were done. I would definitely need more than ten.

I worked out the unit prices. The price for each ISBN drops significantly when purchased in bulk. On impulse, my focus more on the unit price than, as it should have been, on the total outlay, I ordered a batch of one hundred. One hundred? What was I thinking? Safe to say, I now own enough ISBNs to write and publish a couple of novels each year until I’m a hundred.

Book size.
The small press did a great job of publishing the paperback editions of my books. My only reservation was the size of the books. The publisher chose 9 inches by 6 inches, which I’m led to believe is a popular size for novels in the States. Well, it isn’t in the UK. Novels here tend to be around 7″ by 4-and-a-bit”, rising to 8″ by 5″. 9 x 6 is unusual, a fact brought home to me when a local independent bookshop agreed to stock my paperbacks. When I visited the shop a few weeks later, I couldn’t see my books anywhere. I eventually spotted them, lying on their sides on a top shelf where their visibility was, to put it mildly, limited. The owner told me that my books were too tall to fit onto the regular shelves, adding that at that size they looked like self-published books, even though they weren’t.

Needless to say, I hadn’t moved many copies by the time the bookshop closed down. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get paid for the few copies that had sold.

Live and learn. When it came to publishing my own paperbacks, I was determined they would be at a size more in keeping with the size of novels found in British bookshops. I opted for 8″ by 5″; there are plenty of other options.

Formatting
I had set up accounts with Ingram Spark and Nielsen (you don’t need a separate account with kdp, provided you already have e-books published through Amazon), and was awash with ISBNs. Next, to begin formatting a manuscript.

I began with the shortest work I was going to turn into a paperback: my first novel, 64,000 words long. I turned to the formatting guidance I’d downloaded from Ingram.

My heart sank. (During the weeks this entire process took, my heart was to bob up and down more than an adrift dinghy.) It seemed, at first (second and third, too) glance like utter gibberish.

Feeling I may have bitten off more than I could chew, I hunted down kdp’s formatting guidance. This I found a little more user-friendly. (For anyone who’s interested, it can be found here. It’s been updated since I last used it and looks to be more comprehensive now.)

I use Word, and came to learn more about it during the next few weeks than I had learned in the previous ten years. Mirror margins; unusual line spacing (1.15 is perfect); section breaks; justification; headers and footers, and (aargh!) page numbering; kerning (a word I’d not even heard of before); tracking; font sizes and types and licences (who knew you needed a licence to use certain fonts?—not me); embedding fonts; converting to print-ready pdf.

After days, probably a week or more, of running up blind alleys and cursing and threatening to throw my laptop out of the window, I produced a pdf that kdp’s automated system seemed to like.

It was then I returned to Ingram’s specifications, better equipped to understand them, and realised their requirements were not the same as kdp’s, were more stringent and I would need a differently formatted file to upload to Ingram. Bugger!

After more fiddling and fussing, more trial and error, more turning the air blue, I settled on a template for all my paperbacks that satisfies the requirements of both kdp and Ingram. (Tip: follow Ingram’s guidelines—they work for kdp, but that doesn’t hold true the other way around.) The dimensions are noted for future use in a notebook I keep handy because you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll have forgotten how to do it next time I need to format for paperback.

Covers
Probably the steepest learning curve of all, and one where I’ve yet to attain the summit and start down the other side. For my e-books, I’ve either purchased premade covers, designed basic covers myself (using Canva) or, for a more professional look, my brother has helped me out by designing them for me in Photoshop. However, I wanted to go the whole hog and become completely self-sufficient. This meant not having to rely on the goodwill of my brother (who is always willing to help, but is himself a busy man) and not having to buy covers elsewhere.

Clearly, I needed to acquire a photo manipulation program and learn how to use it. (This is someone who has never used Photoshop or anything similar, ever.)

Photoshop was a non-starter—it seemed I would have to pay an annual subscription to use it. No, thanks. I wanted something I could pay for once and would do the job. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t receive fancy upgrades; chances are, I wouldn’t know how to use the new features anyway.

Over to my brother, who recommended a reasonably priced (around £50) program—Affinity—that should do what I needed it to and, more importantly for me, only required that one-off payment.

Then I began to try to work out manually the required size of the covers; more particularly, the spine widths—different requirements, again, for kdp and Ingram. Oh, boy. I still have the workings; they look like the jottings of some maths genius devising a formula for proving homological conjectures in commutative algebra*.

I began to despair—I was running out of enthusiasm and hadn’t even opened my new program—and vented to bruv, who again came to the rescue. “Why don’t you download a cover template?” he enquired. A what? There are templates? Of course there are. Both Amazon and Ingram provide templates. You merely insert the dimensions of the book and number of pages—Ingram also needs the ISBN to produce a template.

So I was up and running. All I needed to do now was learn how to use the new program. Again, oh, boy. Probably another post’s worth in itself. Suffice it to say here, I managed to produce six covers in time to meet the end-of-June deadline. I’ve included photos of them—they are the kdp proof copies, thus the stupid ‘not for resale’ band around them. They’re not the greatest (due solely to my limitations, not Affinity’s) and a few of them are in dire need of improvement. Trouble is, Ingram also charges for making changes to covers and manuscripts so I’m going to wait until it next runs a free promotion before swapping the covers for improved versions.

Barcodes
At one point, I was stressing about how to produce the barcode that appears on the back of paperback books. There was no need to worry—the Ingram cover template includes the necessary barcode; kdp adds it following submission of the final cover.

Pricing
The final conundrum, and one which I’m not convinced I’ve solved. I was ready to publish my paperbacks, but had no idea how much to charge for them. And Ingram’s guidance rabbited on about retailer discounts and returns and other stuff I didn’t understand. I ended up asking about pricing in the Writers’ Café on kboards and was pointed to the blog post of a knowledgeable and well-respected member of the kboards community. I can do no better than share the link to her post: here.

I was running out of time to publish the books before the Ingram free promotion deadline, so I hastened to the blog, read her advice and decided to follow it.

It seems to me that what the prevailing wisdom boils down to is this. We indies don’t enjoy the economies of scale of print runs of ten thousand copies at a time—our books are printed on demand, which is a significantly higher cost per unit. We don’t have the distribution networks and goodwill that see traditionally published books on sale in all the major bookshops. No matter what we do, the chances of having our books stocked by any bricks and mortar bookshops are minuscule. If we don’t price our paperbacks correctly, we are unlikely to make much, if any, profit from selling them; it’s even possible to end up operating at a loss.

Essentially, we cannot compete on price with the big boys when it comes to selling paperbacks and so shouldn’t try to. (It’s been a while since I looked into pricing and I’m not sure I fully understood all the ins and outs when I did. If there are errors in the above summation, they are mine alone.)

My paperbacks are priced between $13.95 and $15.95 (that’s £9.99 – £11.99). I might not sell many at these prices, but at least I’ll make a few pounds profit on any that do sell. Heck, what would be the point otherwise?

Marketing
If you’ve read any of the posts about my efforts at marketing, you’ll know that I’m hopeless. A complete muppet. But I’m trying to improve. How I’m going to attempt to market my paperbacks, I have no clue right now. It’s something I need to think about and research. But it can wait: I don’t want to spend a penny marketing them until I’ve been able to upload the improved covers. A topic for a future ‘Marketing for Muppets’ post, I think.

[ * there is such a thing—Google it, like I did]

 

Shiny Object Syndrome

This piece is about writing, but I suppose could apply to most creative endeavours. It’s about that moment when you’re elbows-deep in your current work and are struck by an idea for a new project. The idea seems far more enticing than the work-in-progress (WIP). The idea offers endless possibilities for a breathless novel that will lead to a series and a movie deal, enable you to give up the day job and pursue your dream of becoming a full-time writer. In short, the idea is shiny.

What does the writer afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome do upon being struck by the new idea? He (or, as always, she, but let’s take that as read) doesn’t make a note to return to it after completing the WIP. Nope, he abandons the WIP and embarks instead upon the project sparked by the shiny new idea.

Of course, what usually happens is that when the new idea has become the WIP, when the writer has dug beneath the shiny surface, exposing its guts, so to speak, he finds that the idea has lost its lustre. In fact, he realises that once he has started to work out how the nuts and bolts will fit together, the shiny new idea looks much like the abandoned WIP.

Not wanting to give up on the new idea so soon after embracing it, he ploughs on. Until the next new idea strikes. And, boy, is it shiny…

What he ends up with are a handful of novel openings, perhaps a few that have progressed beyond the first couple of chapters, but nothing complete. Nothing to edit and polish. Nothing to publish.

I have a few barely-started novels of my own hanging about my hard drive, dating back twenty or more years when I struggled to see a project through before beginning a new one. Yep, my name is Sam and I once suffered from Shiny Object Syndrome.

If you are a writer accumulating a bundle of unfinished works of your own and feel you might also be a sufferer, what can you do about it?

Well, I’m no expert so all I can do is tell you how I overcame the problem. I began by starting a notebook into which I jotted a note – maybe only a line or a two; no more than a paragraph – of any shiny idea that occurred while I was already engaged on another project. This doesn’t need to be a notebook; it can be a Word document, or equivalent; perhaps a diary or series of index cards or some sort of voice recording. Whatever works for you.

I find that the mere act of noting the idea down helps, as if translating it from a sparky bundle of electrical impulses to inked symbols on a page removes much of the shine. But not all of it.

Then comes sheer will power. I made it an unbreakable rule that I wouldn’t abandon any WIP in favour of a new idea, no matter how dazzling the shiny object appears. Unless you are a being forged of titanium self-discipline, it’s not that easy to stick to the rule. Shiny objects are still shiny.

The final piece of the cure for me was the feeling I derived from typing ‘The End’ on the first draft of my first novel. It’s a strange mix of loss and euphoria, but the dominant sensation is one of deep satisfaction. That’s not a feeling the writer who jumps from unfinished project to unfinished project will ever experience. That in itself is enough to keep me working on the WIP, no matter how shiny the new object looks.

Most of the time, anyway.

Plotting v Pantsing

In What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1, I talked about arguably the most contentious issues amongst writers, the Oxford comma. This post is about another issue that, bizarrely, seems to cause friction between writers—not every writer, by any means, but enough that discussions on this topic often descend into conflict.

Since this piece is more likely to be of interest to writers, apologies to any readers looking in, but it may be worth you reading on to give you an idea of the sort of things writers argue about between themselves, things that seem inconsequential to non-writers (and, indeed, to many writers).

So what are we talking about? In general terms, a ‘plotter’ is a writer who, before he (or she, but we’ll take that as read) embarks on writing a novel, plans it in detail so that he knows every character and every turn and twist of the plot before writing one word of the novel itself. A ‘panster’, by contrast, sits down and starts writing the novel with no or little idea of who the characters are or how the story will pan out—flying by the seat of his pants.

Those are the extremes, but there’s a broad spectrum in between. Most writers are likely to fall somewhere along that spectrum, hybrids of panster and plotter who may have planned certain aspects of the novel, but perhaps not all.

I’m very much towards the panster end of the spectrum. I embarked on a 300,000-word trilogy (though, in true panster style, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy when I started out) without knowing anything other than it would be about an apocalypse caused by a virus manufactured and deliberately spread by beings who wanted this planet for themselves. I had no idea who the characters would be, what situations they would find themselves in (other than the broader scenario of facing the eradication of almost the entire human species) and how the story would pan out.

How does a writer even begin writing a novel with only the vaguest notion to go on? In my case, I began by describing the effects of the virus on the human body. That scene subsequently formed the opening of chapter 6 of The Cleansing. Having set pen to paper (rather, finger to keyboard), I was then able to begin writing the opening scene proper in which a woman sits gazing out over Central Park before setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to the destruction of humanity.

This is how I’ve always worked, literally making it up as I go along. On occasion I’ll have a final scene in mind, or perhaps one or two key scenes along the way. It then becomes a case of navigating the characters through the uncharted waters in between (provided they want to play ball—my work might begin as plot-driven, but the characters quickly take over). More often, I have nothing to go on except a vague scenario that usually begins, ‘What if…?’

When I first began self-publishing, having written two novels and umpteen short stories back in the days when the e-book didn’t exist, I joined various writing forums. These forums were full of advice as to the ‘best’ way to carry out the writing and publishing process. Most of it was opinion presented as fact. One ‘fact’ I saw often was that the best way to write a novel was to plan it out in detail before starting to write it. The implication was often only thinly veiled: real writers plotted; if you didn’t, you must belong to some sort of Mickey Mouse club of pretend writers.

I have tried plotting a story and found that I simply can’t do it, that my brain doesn’t work that way. I might be able to vaguely sketch out a couple of chapters, but for the life of me cannot go any further until I have written the opening chapters and have begun to get to know the characters—until then, I have no idea how they are going to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. There have been times when I’ve had to abandon potential plot strands upon realising that the characters would not react in the way required to realise them.

But that’s just me. There are many writers who couldn’t write like that, who have to know the route a story is going to follow, the stops along the way and the destination, before writing one word of it. And that’s perfectly fine—that’s the way their brains work. We’re all different, right? (Altogether now: yes, we are all different—sorry, just having a Monty Python moment.)

The point is, and this needs to be emphasised:

There is no right or wrong way—there’s only what works best for the individual.

Seems pretty obvious, you’d think. Yet—and it’s no good asking me why because I haven’t the foggiest—some writers adopt a polarised stance. These are examples of some of the comments that appear with eye-rolling predictability whenever the topic is raised:

‘Plotting kills creativity’
‘Pantsing stifles creativity’
‘Every book being written must follow a plan’
‘Plotting makes writing the book boring’
‘Pantsing means that most of the story will have to be discarded or rewritten’
‘Plotting allows no scope for characters to develop naturally’
‘Pantsing results in incoherent, rambling storylines’

It’s the absolute nature of these opinions-masquerading-as-fact that bugs me. ‘Every book being written must follow a plan.’ Nope, they don’t. Maybe that’s how it works for you, mate, but you’re not me.

What each statement amounts to is, in effect, ‘I plot/pants, so plotting/pantsing must be the best way to write a book and I’m going to sneer at anyone who employs an alternative method’. Sigh.

Despite the title of this piece, writing fiction isn’t a contest between plotting and pantsing. There is plotting, there is pantsing, and there is a wide range of methods employing a mix of the two. Each writer needs to find what works best for them. No writer should hold out their method as being the only or right way. Seriously, there’s no such thing.

We’re Doomed, Captain Mainwaring, Doomed

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)

There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.

This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.

Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages. Gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.


Ready Player One

Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was finished in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brotheris watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?


1984

Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.


Fahrenheit 451

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The eponymous handmaid’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.


The Handmaid’s Tale

It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.

I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.

The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off – the book is by far superior.

The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.


The Bachman Books

Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.

(A quick note about the title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

‘Two nations separated by a common language’. That quote, or something very like it, is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and refers, of course, to the differences between English as spoken and written in the UK, and the version spoken and written in the USA. (I am aware that the term ‘America’ includes a heck of a lot of countries, but for the purposes of this piece I am going to use ‘American English’ as shorthand for the spoken and written word pertaining to the USA only.)

Everyone—and we’re talking about adults, not children—knows there are differences between British and American English, right? It surprised me to discover that there are people who don’t. It came to my notice a few years ago through a review of one of my books. The reviewer said that the book was ‘littered’ with spelling mistakes. (Note: this is not about having a pop at reviewers. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every review my books receive, even the less-than-stellar ones of which I have my fair share. I mention it only because that’s how I became aware of this issue.)

The review puzzled me. Whilst I aim to have my books completely error-free, I accept they may contain the odd error that was missed during the editing and proofreading stages. But littered with spelling mistakes? I knew that couldn’t be right (and read the book again to be sure). It took me days to realise that the reviewer clearly wasn’t aware of the differences between British and American English, and the mistakes ‘littered’ throughout the novel were actually words spelt in British English.

I want to talk a little about those differences, but I don’t intend to list every one I’m aware of—there are plenty of places where you can find such lists, if you’re interested (e.g. here). I’d rather mention a few that amused (and sometimes continue to amuse) or surprised me when I discovered them.

Take the word ‘fanny’—a fairly innocuous word in the States, but with quite a different meaning here. The first time I came across the American usage was, I think, in a Stephen King novel many years ago. When a male character patted a female character on her fanny, I almost dropped the book in shock. I mean, he’s noted for his horror, not his erotica. It took me a while to work out that in American English the word refers to the backside. I still can’t see the expression ‘fanny pack’ without it causing a juvenile snigger.

Then there’s the word ‘pissed’. To us Brits that means drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, sozzled. In American English, it means annoyed. We also use it to mean annoyed, but only when adding the word ‘off’: I was so pissed off, I felt like getting pissed. It was probably in a SK novel (since he was the American writer I mostly read as a teenager) that I first came across the American usage. When he described a character as being ‘pissed’, I understood him to mean that the character had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Strange that he’d failed to explicitly mention the drinking; even stranger that the character was behaving normally (in an annoyed sort of way), without slurring or stumbling about or trying to hold conversations with the furniture. The penny has long dropped, but I still have to sometimes pause when I come across the word in a novel and remind myself whether the author is American before deciding if the character is annoyed or drunk. It’s not always obvious from context.

There are some words in American English whose variation from British English is minuscule and yet they always give me pause while my mind adjusts. Take the simple little word ‘spit’. In American English, it doesn’t appear to have a past tense. In British English, it’s obvious in which tense I’m writing: ‘The boxers spit out blood’ versus ‘The boxers spat out blood’. In American English, they’d both read exactly the same and, unless obvious from context, ‘The boxers spit out blood’ could mean that they’re doing it now or did it yesterday.

I can’t read the American English words ‘math’ and ‘aluminum’ without wondering what they’ve done with the ‘s’ or the ‘i’; the first time I saw the latter, I thought it must be a new kind of metal that I hadn’t heard of. I had to rely on context to realise that a ‘bullhorn’ is what we call a ‘loudhailer’; a ‘cell phone’ is what we call a ‘mobile phone’ (easy if the word ‘phone’ is included, otherwise I’m relying on context); a ‘pacifier’ is what we call a baby’s ‘dummy’, not some sort of cattle prod as I first thought.

Some American English words I prefer to their British equivalents. There’s something far more colourful to my ears about a stroller than a pushchair. When I first read the name ‘tic-tac-toe’, I thought it sounded like a delightful new game to discover; I was disappointed to learn that it’s merely noughts and crosses, with a less literal but more fun-sounding name. And what about the American English ‘fender’, as opposed to the British ‘wing’? No contest, unless someone, employing ‘wing’, can think of a better phrase for a minor road traffic accident than a ‘fender bender’.

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

‘Bangs’ is another American English word that confounded me when I first came across it. I suspect that everyone these days knows that the word refers to the humble fringe but, seriously—bangs? If it wasn’t clear from context, how the deuce was a British reader in the pre-internet days (and, yes, if you’re of a certain youthfulness, there is such a thing as ‘pre-internet’ and it wasn’t that long ago) supposed to work out what that meant?

On one of the online forums I frequent, where writers from the US are the majority representatives, I happened to use the word ‘fortnight’ that we Brits use without even thinking about it to mean a period of two weeks. This was quite recently and I was taken aback when some folk from the US didn’t know what I was talking about. Not all of them, by any means, but enough to show that the word I assumed was in common usage throughout the English-speaking world isn’t even widely used in one chunk of it (a big chunk, granted).

Another great source of confusion, at least to me, is the American way of referring to the ground floor of a building as the first floor, although there is a lot of sense in their method. So a lift (elevator) in a six-storey (that’s ‘story’ in American English, which mkes a lot less sense) building in the States has buttons marked 1 to 6, whereas a British one has buttons marked 1-5 and another marked G. I prefer the American way in this instance.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Knowing that these differences in usage and spelling and grammar exist is vital for any writer, either side of the Atlantic; at least, for any writer who is looking to sell his or her books internationally. It may also be a good idea, for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware that the differences exist, to somehow make them aware. Some authors insert a note in the front matter stating that the book is written in British or Canadian or whatever English, which varies in some aspects of usage, spelling, etc from American English.

I haven’t done that (yet), preferring where possible to employ a subtler approach, such as have the characters in the novel mention the variations; this is much easier where the book includes both British and American characters. It is an issue that I now keep in mind in all my writing, even going so far as to name a novel The Elevator. There is actually a good reason for calling it that, which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of there being some (a tiny minority, I’m sure) American readers who’d think a book called The Lift is about ice skating didn’t feature in my reasoning.