Scribbling Chronicles

Unlikely beginnings

I never meant to write the book. Certainly, Love, War and Ice Cream didn’t start out with a story or character or setting or dialogue or anything like that. My dad just asked me to sort out a box of old photos, and to choose a few to show at the 70th birthday celebration he was planning for my mother and himself, in Spain, which is where they live part of the time. He was giving himself two years to arrange everything. Yes, he’s organised. With six children spread across the world he has to be.

There were hundreds of pictures, mostly of dead people I’d never met. Eventually, I whittled the photos down to about fifty. If I had to choose only two, they would be this one of my dad, at twelve, grinning in top hat and tails, and this one of my mother as a mini Spanish dancer, complete with kiss curl. Side by side, these poses, fading black and white, portray their worlds poles apart, and also the renewed hopefulness of the period just after the War, and their joy of life shines through. I think this is their foundation, their common bond, and what keeps them together.

Had my children not begun full time school, and had my husband not been travelling more than ever, my pen would likely never have touched paper to record the stories that have shaped  my family and me. Then my husband’s big company employer decided to merge with another firm. I waited to hear whether we would have to move again across the Atlantic for the second time in eighteen months. Better to do anything than fret, so I scribbled.

Two midwives

All in all, it took me about a year to write Love, War and Ice Cream. Now that I’m lucky to have an hour’s stretch to sit and type, it doesn’t seem possible that I could do so for a whole day at a time…

I showed my manuscript to a friend, let’s call her Susie. “Too good to keep it just in the family—get it published,” she urged, all warmth and cups of tea. You should know that she’s very kind.

I talked to another friend, who had, before children and grandchildren, been someone in publishing. “You’ll never get that printed in time for the party,” she said, let’s call her a sensible name like Edith. Edith is kind in the realistic kind of way.

My face must have been expressive, or maybe it was the tears dripping onto her polished floor. Edith threw me a bone. “Traditional publishers take forever, but you can self-publish.”

“But… but… but… the cost! And… and… and… where do I start?” I can be pathetic sometimes.

She smiled at my reaction but patience isn’t Edith’s thing “Don’t be silly,” she boomed. Her dog cowered in the corner. “It’s easy and it doesn’t cost as much as you think… and you can use the resulting book to approach an agent about future work. Sprat to catch a mackerel, you know.”

Image

She certainly caught me.  I stopped submitting fragments of my manuscript to agents and doubled down to investigate self-publishers. I found a whole new world I never even knew existed.

Secrets

At this point in our relationship, a confession is due. I have a guilty secret shared only with select understanding friends. I love spreadsheets, their grids and sinuous ability to morph into graphs and pie charts are particular fetishes.

In the dark of night, when husband and children are asleep in their beds, I slink to the silent office and switch on my laptop. The x icon on my desktop calls to me. I tap at it impatiently. In a second, the spreadsheet flashes onto the screen. I stroke the key pad and the cells thrust their data into my consciousness.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little but perfect spelling has a similar effect on me. Spreadsheets and perfect spelling are to me what shoes are to others.

On Edith’s advice, I spent a solid week researching self-publishing companies online and prettying their details onto my beauteous excel spreadsheet, all organized by company name and relevant details, cost and content of various packages, whether the company had published a best seller before and what genres they specialized in, and also whether I liked the covers they created.

I don’t know about you, but once I’ve condensed all my data, I find that some boxes just glow. At the top of my table, ordered by cost, the boxes about Lulu (http://www.lulu.com/) beckoned with a fuschia pink light. “Pick me, pick me!” they called. I was tempted. Lulu lets you do as much or as little as you want. Very flexible, and reasonable, and great margins. Trouble was, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to pass.

Near the bottom of the table, iUniverse (http://www.iuniverse.com/) glittered golden, promising to hold my hand every step of the way, until I had a book I would be proud of. I had nothing to lose except for rather a lot of money. I called. It was the beginning of something, but I’m still not sure how to describe it.

The Plastic Surgeon

While exploring self-publishers, I continued to tinker with my manuscript. I knew it wasn’t quite right but I didn’t know what to do about it.

I googled “how to improve my manuscript…” because sometimes simplest is best. What came up was a list of books, most of them formulaic:  How to write a novel in ten easy steps, Self-editing for dummies etc. They were easy to discount. The library lent me a few of the rest and I flicked through the contents. The one book that I borrowed over and over again was Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.  The blurb had me hooked from the start: “This is a not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions; how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.”  It’s become my “go to” reference; if Sol doesn’t say so, then it isn’t worth bothering with.

Perhaps he’s not the first to recommend putting down your manuscript for a few weeks, reading a few good or even great books, and then rereading your work and revising as necessary. Per Sol’s instructions, I filed away my final draft, and trotted off to the library for Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, March (the one by Geraldine Brooks), Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong and Alberto Moravia’s Two Women. All different, all amazing books, and all relevant to my writing. I immersed myself in wonderfulness. Then I opened the drawer.

How can I describe the skin-crawling horror at the realisation that my beloved creation, the precious fruit of my sweat and tears, was, in fact, hideous? I should have read Shelley’s Frankenstein. At dawn, copious edits in yellow highlighter glinted on my print copy like the monster’s eyes. I girded my loins (whatever that is, I’ve always like the sound of it), made the changes on my laptop and did the exercise again.

My impression of my work after the second reread was marginally better (perhaps because I was comparing it to my library selections of the time, which included Bridget Jones’ Diary, lovely but hardly the stuff of enduring classics), but my manuscript was still unsatisfying. I didn’t know what to do about it so I became unhinged.

My husband found me at 3am staring at the full moon through the office window. “Hmm, a colleague of mine just published a book,” he said. “Maybe he can help?” This is why I love my husband: he knows me better than I know myself.

The colleague did help. He recommended that mystical creature, the independent editor.  “Like cosmetic surgeons, they take away blemishes so that the manuscript becomes more acceptable, still yours but slimmer and with a tighter jawline.” Harps or at least bells played in the background, like when Clarence got his wings. It had never occurred to me that I could pay someone to babe-ify my manuscript. “…Make sure that you pick one who’s experienced in your genre,” was his final pearl.

I contacted Lisa Dale Norton by e-mail, a tentative message, haltingly full of perhapses and maybes. She specialises in memoir and was encouraging and gentle, but also firm about the important things that are central to writing: voice and point of view and character and use of dialogue. We agreed on a course of action and my manuscript returned from two weeks with her, decorated all over with suggestions, comments and questions in her delightful cursive hand (I paid her, of course).

Her advice wasn’t what I had expected. But what had I expected? Despite the panic rising in my throat that I would have to rewrite the bloody thing completely, I plodded through the reams of considerations. Revising one chapter was all it took to convince me of Lisa’s brilliance. It was a ton of extra work but I restructured, nipped and tucked and underpinned, until finally I felt that my final, final, really final draft was ready to go to the publisher for review. I had to check one more time though. After a third stay in Sol’s drawer, my baby emerged not too cringe-making. Phew.

An Odyssey

It really isn’t too much of a stretch to call the publication process an odyssey.

After checking the manuscript one final time, I submitted it to the publisher and waited. The shores of publication beckoned but there were many challenges to overcome before I could reach my destination.

First was the formatting of the work. On the publisher’s guidelines page, the instructions seemed simple enough, but who knew that it was going to take days to complete the task? Like Ulysses trapped on Calypso’s island, I just couldn’t get this finished and move onto the next stage. There was always just one more thing to check and fix.

At last I submitted it and waited for the galleys. Little did I know that they would be a shipwreck.

ulysses shipwreck

Photo: 2010 Jupiterimages Corporation

What was returned to me looked good enough at first but then, when I began to read through, it was clear that there were sentences and sometimes even whole pages missing, the pictures were in the wrong place, and with new eyes I saw that my own writing faults persisted. A lot more work was needed to address these problems. Heart sinking just doesn’t describe the feeling.

This was when I realized that writing is not achieved on one’s own. It’s more of a team sport than we think. My friends and family offered to help. It was thanks to them that the book actually became reality. Like Nausicaa, they helped me nurse the manuscript back to health so that it could finish its journey. Finally, it was ready and the epic could draw to a close.

… and a Saga

At the same time as all of the proofing and reviewing palaver was going on, there was also the cover to be considered. We’ve all of us heard that “the cover is the most important thing for selling the book.” I suppose it’s partly true, since it’s the first thing that a reader sees. I think I took that point too much to heart though, and agonized about the thing beyond what was reasonable.

I wanted it to convey the emotion and main elements of the story and also the setting and the fact that the book spanned several decades and involved numerous characters yadayadayada. The brief to the publisher was thorough but not at all helpful, I know that now. It’s not surprising then that the first mock-up was a total disappointment, and so was the second, and third. I wanted too much, which really translated into I didn’t know what I wanted.

In the end, we compromised on just conveying the setting: middle class England, an ice cream shop, and WWII. The outcome was a teacup full of ice cream against a backdrop of a formation of bomber planes. It wasn’t perfect, not least because it looked a tad photoshopped and the font wasn’t right, but it was good enough to publish in time to present the book to my parents at their 70th birthday party. In the end, that was what I really wanted.

9781462093113-Perfect.indd

The Cost of a Bad Price

The first thing I found out after my book was published was that it was too expensive. In my inexperience, I had relied too much on the publisher’s assurances about the right thing to do, but bottom line, price matters. It matters because it signals what type of book it is. It can also signal how many copies the publisher is expecting to sell.

For example, a book to be bought with a child’s pocket money generally costs about $3.99 and will likely be a small, thin, stapled paperback. That price means that it doesn’t matter too much if the child scrawls all over it and then “reads” it in the bath, as mine have done all too often.

reading-in-bath

Photo: http://www.flipside.theiet.org

On the other hand, a glossy coffee table book with lots of luscious photographs may fetch more than $100, but let’s bear in mind such a book is generally given as an aspirational gift or to show visitors what fabulous taste one has, so the price is not so much a book price as the tag of a luxury good.

A text book typically is also highly-priced, in part because it saves the student/reader a ton of time that would otherwise need to be spent researching and synethesising information. Students may also perceive that a book will help them get their degree or qualification and so be willing to sacrifice more gold than usual to that god. I know I did.

Airport novels are on the opposite scale, the commodities of the book world. They’re what people consume when they’re trying not to remember that they’re in a scary plane, or in an even scarier world, the reading equivalent of a chocolate bar, or a hamburger, and most people don’t spend more than $9.99 for that. This means that, to make their profit, traditional publishers have to print hundreds of thousands of copies, the words tightly packed on paper that’s cheaper than disposable tissue. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that books are the commonest item left on a plane.

Now, it seems unfair to me that literary books, even those as good for one as curly kale from Wholefoods, do not command greater prices than blockbusters. A quick squizz at amazon shows that Grisham’s latest massmarket blockbuster is $9.99 while Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winner is $10.88. This price parity signals that a novel is a novel, and that books of a certain type are priced similarly. Yet self-published print books of all types consistently have prices almost double of comparable traditionally published books. Don’t you wonder why this is? I did, but not early enough in the process.

During my self-publishing odyssey, I’ve learned that price is critical not only because it has a direct bearing on whether people will buy (can’t be too high) but also because royalties are derived from this (don’t go too low). The problem you’ll find is that many self-publishing companies fix the book’s retail price and you have no say at all. The price is always on the high side because it reflects a high cost of production: small quantities printed just in time. High production costs are also a function of the number of pages in the book, and to keep this number high, many self-publishing companies make the font size generous. The longer the book, the higher the price, and they don’t mind how high it is. You see, most of these companies are not really interested in selling millions of copies of your single book; their business model assumes that they will sell just a hundred copies of lots of books, any books. They also assume that the author will buy those first hundred copies for sampling or to give away as Christmas presents, and so if the sales are greater than a hundred, that’s cream.

It’s important to understand this business model. If you go with a self-publishing company, make sure you have your say on price BEFORE you sign the contract, and keep the number of pages manageable. Buyers don’t like paying over the odds for anything, and retail stores won’t stock your book if the price is twice that of comparable books, because their customers won’t buy an expensive book they’ve never heard of. I mean, would you?

Epilogue

Over the last few years, my book, Love, War and Ice Cream, has sold several hundred copies. That’s nice but it’s not nearly enough to recoup the costs of publishing and it certainly doesn’t pay for all the time writing the thing. It’s just as well that I wrote it mainly as a gift to my parents. There have been added benefits of great value: precious insights into the life of a writer, not so scary considering that I’m continuing along this path; actual experience of what goes into publishing, which opened my eyes to why traditional publishing houses are so picky; and a better understanding of what sells a book.

I don’t have to tell you that quality is important (but not critical!). Perhaps the most important thing of all is knowing your audience. Although many English-speaking readers were kind about my book, it was the reaction of a Spanish reader that inspired me to take the next step: “This book is really about Spain, so why didn’t you write it in Spanish, for Spanish readers?” My parents too were asking for a translation for their friends in Spain, where they live part of the time. I decided to put my other writing on hold and go ahead, reasoning that it was easier to translate than write something new.

That wasn’t exactly how it turned out. The translation was quite difficult, and required some major rewriting too, to better convey nuances and subtexts taken for granted in the English language. With much help from several excellent people, it was finally translated, just in time for my parents’ Golden Anniversary.

AGH Cover

To save time, I self-published again, just as an e-book and with no fuss at all, through the very efficient and affordable Dog Ear Publishing: www.amorguerrayhelado.com. Three months on, and I’ve sold more books than in the whole prior three years. Is that because it’s a better book second time around? Is it due to the better pricing strategy? Am I marketing it more effectively? All of these are factors, I’m sure, but perhaps the greatest factor for success has been persistence. And now, it’s very sweet to feel that all the time and effort is being rewarded, very sweet indeed.

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