Category Archives: Publishing

The Well voted ‘best Halloween read’ by members of Goodreads


I’m somewhat blown away today, 31 October 2011, to find that The Well has been voted number one in a Goodreads poll for the ‘best books to read for Halloween’.

Goodreads best Halloween read poll 2011

It’s very humbling to be listed even on the same page as heroes of mine, such as Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe – let alone be above them.

What’s also especially encouraging is that The Well has the highest average reader rating out of all of the top ten books on the list.

I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who voted – a wonderful Halloween present, in a month where The Well has also been in Amazon UK’s top-ten UK horror books.


Vote for The Well trailer


I’ve entered the trailer for The Well in the International Movie Trailer Festival. This is an annual contest for independent creatives, especially movie makers – and, usefully enough, they have a section for book trailers.

Here’s the trailer:

If you would like to vote for the trailer, please visit the 2011 Trailer Contest page and register your vote. It would be just fantastic for a horror book trailer to be highly placed – or even win!

Voting is simple, but it’s easy to miss the link which enables you to do so.

First, visit this page: http://www.internationalmovietrailerfestival.com/imtf/index.php/trailer-2011/

Then, search for ‘The Well’.

When the trailer comes up, click on the link ‘watch this trailer’ to view it.

Once you have watched it, click on the white X to close the trailer window, then a link appears for you to vote (it appears next to the link which says ‘watch this trailer’).

Click on the link and register your vote!

Thanks very much for taking the time to vote. I really do appreciate it.


The film of the book


Quite a few people have asked me how the trailer for The Well was made, so I thought that it would be useful to run through the creative process.

First, here’s the finished trailer…

It’s not that unusual for an author (especially an independent author) to use a trailer to promote a book. So, as writing on The Well drew to a close, I decided that creating a trailer would be a great idea.

I mentioned this to my eldest son, Dave, and a friend of his, James Darlington, who happened to be working towards his degree in media studies. James kindly offered to create the trailer, since it would be good for his course, portfolio and CV. Dave (who had just finished his degree in music composition and production) offered to record the soundtrack.

I guess that’s the point at which I felt really lucky – to create what we eventually did takes a lot of time and, if you’re not doing it yourself, can cost a lot of money.

We kicked around some ideas and decided that we were going to take a really bold approach to hopefully end up with something a little different from the typical book trailer: we’d film it not as if The Well was a book, but as if it was a film.

All we needed was a remote cottage, an ancient well, a couple of young actresses and an amenable crow. We’ll get on to those in a moment.

Although I’m known to be thorough, I don’t like to micro-manage other creatives; it’s not fair. They need to bring to the table everything they can and not be simply told what to do. So, I gave James as much of a free hand as I could. I’m so glad that I did.

We chatted through the overall approach over a beer, as I recall. We decided that we wanted it to be short, dramatic and feel ‘indie’ in itself – of high quality, but perhaps something like Blair Witch though not quite as frenetic. We also didn’t want to give too much away: The Well starts as if it’s just about a girl who’s fallen into a well, but the story expands rapidly. We didn’t want to create any reveals that blew the lid off too many surprises in the book – therefore, much of the trailer focuses on the book’s initial premise.

James’ first step was to create a storyboard. This sketched out the narrative of the trailer – essentially having the camera moving towards a well, hand-held to give the appearance of being a point-of-view shot, before zooming into the well itself. We’d see inset shots of the trapped girl clawing at the wall, plus, when the camera is at the top of the well, the crow would land on it.

The original storyboard for the trailer

The original storyboard for the trailer

Brilliant: a green light and James got to work. The biggest questions were around those things which would be difficult to source or control: the well and the bird. The answer was to create these entirely within the computer as CGI models. This is ambitious – it can easily look rubbish or fake, especially if you’re compositing it into hand-held moving footage. Stone is pretty hard to create in CGI – and a bird is much harder. I didn’t have the budget of James Cameron and there was only so much time we could spend on something that would be on screen for less than a second.

James set to work and came back with some ‘clay renders’ of the well itself. I was totally blown away. Although these are neither lit nor textured, I thought that they already looked pretty good. Next, he worked on the broken grating at the top of the well, with equally excellent results. Finally, he laboured long and hard over the crow. In the end, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. I make this seem as if James disappeared for just a couple of days to do this – it literally took weeks and weeks of hard work.

The Well clay renders

CGI clay renders of the well

Next, we had to film the live footage. The cottage used as reference for the book’s cover is in the Lake District and is pretty remote. What’s worse, we don’t know exactly where it is – a friend, Martin Mackenzie, originally photographed it when he was out walking, several years ago. We decided to film closer to home as another friend of mine, Rob Clarke, thought there was a very similar cottage reasonably nearby, in Macclesfield Forest.

When we arrived to shoot the cottage, it turned out that the Forestry Commission had taken a new road right up to it, which meant that it was almost unfilmable. It just didn’t look remote. But the forest wardens told us of a different cottage, so we made our way to that – it was much better.

We then spent a couple of hours arranging a green cloth on the ground, which would be where the CGI well would be added later. This is the same green-screen technique which is used so often on television shows such as Doctor Who. On the green cloth, we added white markers to give the computer software something to ‘get hold of’ when it’s combining to two bits of footage. James filmed the approach to the non-existent well several times, then got some more shots of the cottage and some establishing shots from around the forest.

James filming the live footage in Macclesfield Forest

James filming the live footage in Macclesfield Forest

Although the cottage is notably different from the one on the book cover, I really didn’t mind. We had to be pragmatic – it wasn’t practical to trek for a day or more to find the original cottage. But also I firmly believe that the trailer needed to be the best possible trailer – it doesn’t need to be slavishly accurate to the cover. (Indeed, I took the same approach with the cover, which differs from the book’s description in a few respects.) This thinking wasn’t just applied to the cottage – the well is smaller than how it’s described in the book and, when you look at the shot from inside looking up, it isn’t as deep. But changing the size and shape of the well made the trailer better, much better. For example, if the well’s grating really was twenty-five feet above the grasping hands, the shot would be far less dramatic.

Next, we needed to add live actors. The daughters of two friends were asked and were both enthusiastic about taking part. Elizabeth Swindells played Becca, the girl in the well. It’s almost a shame we see so little of her – she’s perfectly cast, though prettier than how Becca is described. Samantha Clarke played Hannah – while her father, Rob, held the knife to her. She can report him to Social Services later. They both did a great, great job. Elizabeth was filmed against a green screen: James added her to CGI footage of the inside of the well later. Yep, when she’s slapping the well wall, she was originally slapping me, holding a cardboard box for her to hit. When her hands reach upwards, she was filmed reaching forwards against a green screen, again the well was added later. Samantha was filmed in Rob’s garden.

Then the really, really hard part. James combined all of that footage together to make a seamless narrative. There is a lot of CGI and post-production work that isn’t evident. Elements were removed from the landscape, or added – I won’t go into detail, but you’d be amazed at how much James changed.

The rendering of the final piece at 1080p (full HD) takes around a day. Once it was rendered out, we made quite a few small changes, tweaks to this, that and the other – I think we ended up going through perhaps a dozen iterations towards the end, until we had something with which we were totally happy. (The final video isn’t at full HD, it’s at 720 HD, more than enough for use on the Web.)

Next: the sound. Although James’ work is by far the biggest and hardest, the sound is what sells the video. Dave set to work by adding first the ambient noise of the forest, the water, the thunder, the crow and so on. He wanted to get this to work from end to end before even thinking about the music.

We brought Elizabeth back to cry, whimper and scream for us while we recorded her misery. Good grief, she was good (once we’d stopped her giggling) – when Dave recorded it, we played it back and I have to say it was very unsettling. And she can scream for England – I’m amazed the neighbours didn’t call the police. It’s my voice you can hear saying “do you want to live?”

Effects were then added to all of the sounds – so that the screams echo around the well wall, for instance.

Once done with the sound effects, Dave set to work on the music. We discussed approaches – not wanting ‘tunes’ as such, more mood tones to create a brooding atmosphere. I was also conscious that The Well is a fast-paced read – I didn’t want the music to be too dreamy or ethereal. Yet, the trailer isn’t much more than thirty seconds, so Dave didn’t have scope to compose something with too much structure.

Dave has such a natural talent for music composition (listen to some of the songs he’s writing for his band, Coroner for the Police).

Dave’s music for the trailer is perfect – ominous, but not operatic.

A key balancing-act is mixing the sound effects (such as the crow squawking, the river running and the girl screaming) with the music. Getting these at the right level in the mix took a fair bit of discussion between James, Dave and myself. It’s easy for one to drown out the other, we needed to get this just right – also, the Web isn’t a medium where you can convey a vast amount of subtlety in the audio. Many people would watch the trailer on a laptop, where the audio will be heard through relatively low quality, built-in speakers.

The combination of the video, acting and sound is better than I could have imagined. As I said, I feel lucky to know such talented, giving people. Everyone worked really hard to make everything as good as it could be. End to end, the whole thing took perhaps six months – I don’t think any of us could have predicted that, but the work was harder than expected at pretty much every turn. (For example, the crow is only on screen for a fraction of a second, but it took days and days of non-stop work to create.) In fact, the finished result looked so much as if it’s advertising a film that we had to make sure the captions said very clearly that it’s advertising a book!

I can’t thank everyone who helped me too many times. I can only hope that, perhaps in twenty years, a successful James Darlington name-checks the trailer for The Well as one of his lifting-off points – and perhaps Dave and Coroner for the Police will be household names. Who knows? I’m grateful for their talent.


10 ways Amazon could improve Kindle


There are so many things that I really love about Kindle and about being a Kindle author. I don’t want to get into Kindle-bashing because Amazon’s system is easy to use for readers and writers – but it does have some shortcomings.

Book-gifting across Amazon websites

Currently, only US Amazon users can enjoy book-gifting, but only amongst themselves. This is frustrating, since you can’t gift a book to someone in another country. If you have Amazon accounts in the US and UK (as I do) and a Kindle that’s registered to the UK (you can only register your Kindle to one country) then you can’t even log into your secondary country to gift someone a Kindle book – because your Kindle (which has nothing to do with the transaction) is registered in another country. The only workaround at the moment is to send the person a generic gift certificate, for which you need an Amazon account in that country. Or, I guess, have a second Kindle, which is registered to the secondary account. Hardly global thinking – indeed, many of my gripes would be resolved if Amazon actually traded as a global company and joined the dots on its many offerings.

Gifting or loaning review copies

As a writer, one thing I need to do fairly frequently is to let legitimate reviewers have a free review copy of my novel. At the moment, I either have to mail a printed copy or send someone a gift certificate. Verified authors should be able to either loan or gift as many review copies as they like, direct from their Kindle Direct Publishing account. This would make the process easy and be good for both parties – every book depends on getting reviews.

Book-lending globally

As with book-gifting, book-lending can only be done within the US. It’s a simple and great system – you loan your book to a friend for a fixed period, during which time you can’t read it. It works pretty much as if you had a printed copy so writers aren’t really disadvantaged. Again, this should work globally – not all of my friends are in the UK.

Review linking across Amazon websites

Book reviews clearly help to sell a book. Currently I have over twenty 4/5-star reviews on Amazon in the UK but less than a handful in the US – for the same book. It would help readers, authors and Amazon if book reviews were linked across other Amazon websites.

Campaign to get VAT removed from e-books

It frustrates people when e-books cost as much as physical ones – after all, there’s no physical or transportation costs. But some publishers do reduce pricing – only to have 20% VAT added back on, because for some reason I can’t fathom, e-books are seen as a ‘service’ and not as a book. The law needs to catch up with reality – and it’s companies such as Amazon who can help make it happen, by putting pressure on the Government.

Fix the review system

As I said before, reviews are really important to a book’s sales. But the Amazon review system is flawed – anyone can leave a review, whether they’ve bought the book or not. This means that authors can persuade friends to post glowing reviews and those of a vindictive nature can leave poor reviews for no reason. Would it be such a problem if only those who have bought a book were able to leave a review? (Or, perhaps, since a book can be loaned, only those who have loaded it legitimately onto their Kindle.) Authors are now able to easily see their reviews and can respond to each one with a comment – I really like that nice touch that enables an author to build a rapport with readers. However, an author can’t easily flag a review as inappropriate. These two simple changes would help to police the review system.

ePub support

The Kindle infrastructure provides a seamless purchasing system – but it’s tied largely to Kindle’s own file format. I can understand this – but even iTunes supports MP3. ePub is pretty much the equivalent of MP3 and it would make people’s lives easier if they could install books that aren’t available on Kindle.

Social networking integration

There’s a lot of buzz about books on Facebook, Twitter and the excellent Goodreads (a massive and wonderful community of readers). It would be great if some of this buzz could be seen, as it happens, on an author’s page or on the book’s page. I’d like to see this integration taken further, too – so I can see what my Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Goodreads friends think of a book while I’m reading it, from within Kindle.

Recommendations

A lot of Amazon’s success has been based on its recommendation engine: you know, you look at something on Amazon’s website and you can instantly see how many people have bought it, if they bought something else instead and so on. It would be great to have recommendations on the Kindle itself – see what people thought of an author, related authors and so on. (The Kindle screen saver could be used to display information about your current read.)

More promotional tools for authors

I’ve personally found Amazon to be great for authors – they’re responsive to queries, fix issues fast and let you build your own author page to promote your work. But I think there’s more that can be done. Goodreads lets you host a giveaway draw for a new book, for instance, which really does raise awareness. So, I’d like to see Amazon giveaways along with the ability to post books at a special price for a fixed period – a ‘sale’. (With some restrictions, clearly. And yes, I know I can just drop the price for a month, but that doesn’t have the marketing pull of ‘20% off for two weeks’.)

As I said at the start, I don’t want to bitch about Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing or the Kindle itself – because I love it. Kindle’s a great product that’s hooked into a thoughtfully created ecosystem – but I think it could be better.


Why I prefer Kindle books


Big news for writers and publishers today is that sales of Kindle books have, on Amazon at least, overtaken those of paperbacks for the first time.

According to Amazon: “Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the company has sold 115 Kindle books.”

This is an astonishing rise to maturity for a market that many thought wouldn’t break through because of the ‘appeal of paper’.

My publishing goals are – at least currently – very Kindle-centric. I see the e-book as the future, although I am publishing in print (to reach the widest audience and as a marketing exercise, I make very little on the print copies).

Like many people, I love paper too. I love handling books, I love the smell, the touch – it’s a tactile experience. But I prefer the Kindle – vastly. With the Kindle, I can read and flip pages with one hand; you can’t do that with a book. My library is ready to cart around when I want to travel – all for the weight of less than one book. And the Kindle eco-system is superb: I can loan books to other Kindle users and whatever I’m reading is automatically kept in sync with my other ‘Kindle devices’ such as my iPhone and iPad. So, if I’m suddenly stuck with 15 minutes to spare and only have my phone with me, I can carry on reading where I left off on my Kindle.

And there’s that instant gratification: I can buy it, download it and be reading in less than a minute.

It’s not all upside of course. I enjoy browsing in bookshops and was gutted when Borders in the UK bit the dust. I’m sad that many bookshops will eventually go the same way – flicking through books is an enjoyment in itself. (On the upside, I can download 10% of a Kindle book and read it first to decide if I like it.)

The thing with change is that it’s unstoppable. E-books are the future – certainly not the entire future (has iTunes destroyed CDs or even vinyl? – nope) but the majority of it.

One of the most gratifying things about the rise of the e-book is that it is encouraging people to read more. Reading is a wonderful, absorbing pastime that could easily get lost in a world where entertainment doesn’t usually require much grey matter or a decent attention span. I think, with the rise of the e-book, we’re also seeing a renaissance of literary entertainment.

My two big major beefs are price and VAT. I’ve priced The Well at what I can only say is ‘highly competitive’ – less than £4. Sadly, many e-books cost as much or more than their printed versions. I was ready to buy Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From on Kindle and didn’t – why? Because it’s £12.98 compared to £10.80 in print. I know that’s largely the VAT speaking (more of that in a second) but there are no physical costs with an e-book. It should be cheaper.

So: the VAT. Paying VAT on an e-book because it’s somehow a service and not a product is stupid and inequitable. It needs sorting out. But I doubt it will be, I’ve seldom seen governments be willing to relinquish income.

I’d also welcome a common standard across e-book formats, but I can’t see that happening – being proprietary hasn’t stopped Apple becoming the world number one music reseller. And I don’t think it’s going to hold Amazon back, either.


Reading Kindle books on your iPad


Although the iPad has its own reading software, iBooks, the device is also a great platform for buying and reading Kindle books.

The main difference is that the software to read Kindle books isn’t installed by default – but adding it is free and easy.

The first step is to download the free Kindle app from the iTunes store. (If iTunes asks you to change which country’s store to buy from, then do this.)

You can find the app from within the iPad’s App Store by searching on ‘Kindle’.

Installation is quick, normally just a few seconds.

The next step is to register your iPad with your Amazon account. If you’ve not already been prompted when you first launch the app, hit the i button at the bottom right of the screen. Then choose ‘register this device’.

Registering your iPad Kindle app with your Amazon account

All you have to do then is enter the e-mail address and password of your Amazon account, then press ‘register this device’.

Registering your iPad Kindle app with your Amazon account

It’s that simple – assuming you have an Amazon account. (If you don’t, just log into Amazon’s website and create one – if you’re in a country where buying Kindle content from that country’s website isn’t yet supported, you will be redirected to buy Kindle content from the US store.)

You now have access to the full range of Kindle books – all on your iPad.

Despite iBooks having some nice visual touches, I personally believe that the Kindle app provides a superior reading experience. Rather nicely, if you have a Kindle – or any other device with the Kindle app on it, such as an iPhone, PC, Mac or Android phone – then the app keeps the book you’re reading synced between all of them, automatically, so you’re always on the right page.

Perhaps the first Kindle novel you might want to read after downloading the app could be The Well?


Self-publish and be damned


A dear friend of mine, Emma Clarke, forwarded to me a very interesting article about self-publishing, by Gerald Hornsby.

Like most writers, the goal for myself has always been to ‘become published’. Traditionally, this meant the sponsorship of a publisher, or agent and publisher. Sure, the option of self-publishing has long been there, but has been tarnished with the ‘vanity publishing’ brush – and meant investment up front.

The world is changing. Self-publishing via websites such as CreateSpace and Lulu is relatively simple. Publishing to the Kindle bypasses all of that paper nonsense and sends your work directly into the hands of the reader, without the cost of printing.

It’s never been easier to self-publish.

I want to be clear: I didn’t opt for self-publishing as an ideological choice. I’ve nothing against publishers or agents – indeed, I’d be very happy to hook up with either or both, if the partnership was beneficial. I’m very open-minded about it.

I chose to self-publish for several very practical reasons.

  • I’m an unknown. Publishers are wary of such and have limited resources to promote new authors.
  • Finding a good publisher is probably harder than writing a novel.
  • It meant I could get my work out now.
  • It gave me complete creative control.

I’m also genuinely worried about the publishing industry, which is starting to go through the same massive changes endured by the music industry in the last few years. The channels to market will shift to the Web and reduce in number; physical products will be eclipsed by digital ones; once-powerful publishers will see revenues and profits dwindle. The change is coming – as Gerald Hornsby says, Amazon is predicting sales of 12 million Kindles in 2011; Apple’s iPad might outsell the Kindle almost 6 times over.

So, while I’m open-minded about having a publisher, I want to work with one that embraces these changes – and doesn’t fumble through, trying to protect the current business model.

The scary point Hornsby makes is that Claire King’s next novel will be published by Bloomsbury in 2013. 2013? Two years?

It would be easy to mock and cite this as an example of a sluggish, Jurassic publishing behemoth that needs to get with the times. But as someone who’s worked in print, I know that there will be a set of solid reasons for these timescales – it’s not in Bloomsbury’s interests to hold off launching something from a proven and best-selling author.

But it’s something that gives me pause for thought – I would most certainly want my work to hit the streets faster. And I’d want to work with a publisher that wanted the same – not just for commercial gain and self-satisfaction, but also because I want to work with a publisher that’s agile enough to not only survive the changes to come to the publishing industry, but smart enough to exploit them.

(And I do think that publishers bring a lot to the equation beyond print and distribution. They have a wealth of writing and market experience.)

Like Hornsby, I have two goals – yes, I want to make money, but I also want people to enjoy my work. This means getting it out there.

Self-publish, or through a publisher, it makes little odds to me – I just want to publish. Right now, I’ve opted for a route which means I can at least do that. I’m open-minded about the future.