Saturday, 31 December 2011

Guest blog: Cally Phillips

I am pleased to introduce our guest blogger this week, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips. She has come up with a thought-provoking post. Hope you enjoy it.


Was this the Christmas of the ereader? Did you get a Kindle, Kobo or iPad?  Or a swishy new smart phone dripping with ‘apps’. Even if you didn’t, you can’t have avoided the hype about ebooks which is currently ‘trending’ everywhere. In this blog I want to share some personal thoughts and experiences about the novel world of ebooks. 

Advice: look both ways before embarking on your journey.
At this time of year Janus dictates that one looks both forwards and back, at the year that’s been and the one to come. This is quite appropriate as my main publishing venture in 2011/2012 is ebooks.  I set up HoAmPresst Publishing in 2010 and the ‘mission’ now is to publish my work both as limited edition paperbacks and ebooks. 

As with any emerging technology, ebook production imposes a steep learning curve on the write/publisher.  There is an easy way of course and then there are the not so easy ways. And then there is a consideration of what one means by ‘easy.’  If you read on, you will probably assume I picked the not so easy way, and possibly wonder why. The simple reason is because I am somewhat suspicious of the ‘primrose path’ options of Amazon Direct Publishing or Smashwords (the Coke and Pepsi of this particular branded market). While anyone with a few hours and some determination and the kind of basic understanding of computers you need to write a book these days, can get their work up on Amazon/Smashwords, the ‘royalties deals’ contain some small print that I don’t particularly like or wish to buy into. (Namely having to get involved with the US tax system).

Brands and the marketplace
We live in a world of brands. We are being sold to constantly, even when we are not aware. (This is an underlying theme of my novel Brand Loyalty) There are many more markets than Amazon. This is something we in the UK who are in Kindle frenzy mode (if you didn’t get one for Xmas you’re probably going to look for one in the January sales, right) are oblivious to. But the rest of the world doesn’t just do Kindle. There are many more ereaders available. (I got a Kobo because they were a Canadian firm, selling through W.H. Smith, only to find they got bought out by a Japanese firm a week later, somewhat crushing my politically inspired purchase statement) and there are many more places than Amazon to buy/download your ebooks from. Amazon isn’t even the cheapest. As I write this, it’s possible to get my books cheaper from Kobo than Amazon. Pricing is but one of the many minefields I have yet to fully negotiate in this dark art of ebook publication.

My point however is that, even if you don’t have scruples about Amazon’s business ‘model’, if you want to ‘reach’ as wide an audience as possible, it pays to look beyond the Kindle store.  Globally Amazon does not hold that big a market share (despite what they’d have us believe!!) and believe me, ebook publishing is a global market place.

More about economics
But enough about the production and publications. Your only interest in ebooks may be as a consumer. The good news is that for the consumer ebooks are easy. (Though perhaps once again the ‘primrose path’ caution should apply.)  Of course you can download free and very cheap ebooks.  I’ve done it myself. Most of them are poor quality, or out of copyright, or in my humble opinion, if they are good – ripping off the author.  If you explore the ebook market place you’ll find that the mainstream publishers still charge ‘sensible’ prices unless they are promoting a loss leader, and it is the small/independent/self publishers who are selling at considerably less than ‘market value.’ I simply don’t believe that 99p is a credible price for the creative work that goes into a novel. It’s not that I want to earn mega-bucks, but I find it insulting to my creativity to suggest that it is only worth 99p. I’d rather give books away free. I understand that some writers are taking a calculated risk in that they hope to sell so many more books because of the price that they will end up with more income. I don’t happen to believe that this is true. I don’t think it will happen to any/many others apart from  established, well connected or well known authors (of which I am not one) and I see the near giveaway pricing of 99p as reflective of something more sinister. But, I don’t want to bore you with economics. Suffice it to say, there’s more to all this than meets the eye and I’m happy to discuss it at length in any appropriate forum.

How to maintain an ‘alternative’ perspective.
When I embarked on the venture there appeared to be two standard ‘routes’ into the market place. Firstly you can ‘self-publish’ directly via Amazon or Smashwords (we’ve already seen why I’m not keen on that route) or you can pay a company to convert (ie produce) and distribute for you (they also seem to want to be publisher). Of course they charge you. Since ebooks need to go out in a number of different formats you’ll find that you are charged multiple conversion costs which means that £70 can easily turn into £300.  I was simply not prepared to pay someone to do things I was sure I could do myself. I reasoned that I could do it all apart from the distribution.   Eventually I found a company who would distribute for me. and now have two ebooks available for downloading from a range of e-retailers. (see links below). The difficulties to date appear to be because distribution only deals are certainly not standard procedure at present so I feel happy that in subverting the way things ‘should’ be done, I may be able to change attitudes as to how things ‘could’ be done in the future.

Learning by experience
Suffice it to say, it hasn’t been all an easy ride for me, but my experimenting in an alternative way of distributing ebooks is in keeping with my alternative views on publishing in general so I’m reasonably happy.  I’ve parted with no cash nor have I got to deal with the IRS. And people can now buy my ebooks from Amazon as Kindle or other epub formats from other sources at what I consider to be a reasonable price. In paperback versions I’m cutting my throat to sell at £7.99. Jury’s out on exactly what I’ll get from each ebook, I suspect the sums will always be too complex for me to work out.  Ebooks have the added benefit of course that you can download at the click of a button, conferring instant gratification and saving precious resources.

What about creativity?
Now of course, a guest blog is bound to contain a plug isn’t it? So let me return to the theme of looking forward and back. The two ebooks I have currently ‘out there’ are The Threads of Time which looks into the past and Brand Loyalty which looks into the future.

Threads of Time from Amazon
and Kobo

Brand Loyalty from Amazon
and Kobo

Helpful hints to prospective buyers
As I write the best prices for both are £3.83 on Kindle at Amazon or £3.35 from Kobo.  Of course you can KEEP IT REAL and buy paperback copies directly from my own ‘alternative’ publishing outfit  where you can also find out more about the novels, helping you to make an informed decision before you (hopefully) purchase.  Also I note that via Amazon you can ‘look inside’ the ebook (sample) and on Kobo you can choose to purchase as a gift for a friend! 

And Finally: Happy New Year to you all.
In 2012 I hope to finish a trilogy which will be published in both limited edition paperback and as ebooks, and publish other ‘anniversary’ editions of previous works. For me it’s more about process than product and my motto remains: the destination is in the journey.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Twas the night before Christmas.....

....and thoughts turn to Christmases past.
The first one I remember was way back in the middle of the last century when I was about three years old. I'd been very ill with some sort of childhood ailment but my Mum said I could stay up as someone was coming to see me. Lo and behold, a knock on the door. Father Christmas. Big red coat, boots, hood, beard. No sack of presents, though. He did his Ho Ho Ho and I screamed my head off! I remember Mum saying it was only Mr. Good (he was our upstairs neighbour in our Cornish flats unit - and had done his Father Christmas stint at a works' children's party) but I was having none of it. I remember him saying he was so sorry he thought it would cheer me up. It clearly hadn't. Mum did her best to try and reassure me and kept telling me not to be silly I knew Mr. Good. The dear man took off his beard and hood and I screamed even louder. To this day if someone in a film takes off a mask or false beard I shiver and have to look away....mouse or what!

A happier memory is the parcel of goodies that used to come from Canada from my Auntie Joan each year just before Christmas. It seemed huge when Mum plonked it on the table in the middle of the kitchen. This parcel came wrapped not in brown paper but in cloth of some sort - canvas or sailcloth, something thick anyway. It was stitched up with cotton that had been run through wax. Now, my Mum was 'green' before her time and recycled everything so that waxed cotton had to come off and be rewound around an old wooden cotton reel for further use. Oh, the agony of waiting. But the smell that came from that parcel is with me still - Canadian comics smell different to English (British!) ones......very, very different. And the paper seemed to have a different feel and the printing colours more muted. My brother - three years younger than me -was the recipient of the comics, hand-ons from our cousins, David, Gordon and Raymond. One year - a while before my brother was in to comics, a siren suit came for him to wear. It was yellow with a white fur trim on the hood and no one else in Devon seemed to have one because when Mum took him out in it everyone stopped to ask where she got it. Canadian winters are hard so my brother must have boiled in much warmer Devon in his little siren suit. As he got older he was on the receiving end of lots of check shirts - again, the first around here to have them. My biggest memory of a present is the bottle of perfume that arrived in the parcel the year I was eleven or twelve or so - perfume! It was an Avon perfume called Here's my Heart. It came in a saddle-shaped bottle and it was an epiphany moment for me - only grown-up ladies wore perfume which meant I was on my way to being grown-up, didn't it? Avon hadn't hit the UK shores at that time - or at least it hadn't snaked its way to Devon - so I felt really special having that perfume. To this day I never leave the house without a splash of perfume on my wrists and either side of my neck.

Then there was the Christmas of the spectral cat! Now, my mother-in-law hated cats and she was with us that day. I opened the back door for a bit of air and to let the sprout steam out and in walked this magnificent black cat. Like glistening coal it was, its fur so thick my hand almost disappeared in it when I wenty to stroke it. Quite a sturdy-looking animal with huge eyes that fixed me when I looked at it, but not in a menacing way. It made no noise, ignored a scrap of turkey skin I put down for it and walked into the sitting-room and plonked itself in front of the fire. Now we knew all the cats around here because I was forever chasing them off my garden but none of us had seen this one before. It stayed in front of the fire while we ate lunch, then when I - at last!! - got a moment to sit down it came and sat on my lap. No purr. Just sat there, like a folded up picnic blanket, warm and heavy. If I got up to pour drinks - or let a few out - the cat went back by the fire, then returned to my lap when I sat down again. About midnight, it jumped off and went to the door to be let out. We never saw it again. My mother-in-law reckoned it was spectral and sent for a purpose and she didn't sleep for a week thinking about it.

All memories, all different. This year I have not one, but two grandchildren to share my Christmas, and for me to make memories for. They say you're getting old when the policemen start looking younter......but what about when the Father Christmases do? Here's my own little Father Christmas taking a couple of years ago.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Research in Fiction

There is nothing more irritating to a reader than to come across a fact, or description, which they know is incorrect. It is no excuse to say it is only fiction. Admittedly most writers do use poetic licence from time to time but they know research is like an iceberg with most of it hidden in the writer’s mind and only the salient points showing in the story. Readers of fiction are not looking for a lecture. If they were searching for facts they would choose a book on the subject. Nevertheless it makes a book more interesting, and more memorable, if the reader absorbs some new fact or detail, without being distracted from the enjoyment of the story.
                When I began writing sagas set at the beginning of the twentieth century I spent a lot of time at our local libraries studying the microfiche copies of newspapers. The librarians always helped me find the relevant periods. Newspaper advertisements provide background details - from clothes, materials, prices, foods, furniture, tools and items in everyday life at that time. I confess I often got side tracked with things which had no relation to the book I was writing. One example was discovering Clydesdale horses were regularly exported to Canada from the port of Annan. It seems incredible considering the near derelict state of the small port as I know it. It can barely accommodate a small fishing boat today, though I believe there are plans to renovate it as a tourist attraction. Immigrants embarked on the long journey to Canada from Glencaple, now no more than a small village on the River Nith.
                Over the years I have accumulated a large number of books which I still enjoy using for research, especially the real life events of the twentieth century. Where these slot seamlessly into the lives of my fictional characters I include them to help fix the period in the reader’s mind. Sometimes they affect the life of a character, as when war is declared and a man is forced to join the army, or a major flood or accident.
                Younger writers may find it difficult to believe the valuable research tool of the World Wide Web only became freely available with an announcement on 30th April 1993. It is astonishing how it developed from then to 2000 and how much we can discover today with the press of a few buttons and access to the internet. Even so it is usually advisable to check more than one source if the information is vital to the plot.
                Sometimes it is not only facts we need but also the feel, the atmosphere, maybe the smell or sound or taste of a scene. I am always diffident about asking people for help with research, especially when it is only for a small part of my novel, but that small part is important and it is essential to get it right. Recently I needed information concerning the work and procedures in a certain part of the police force. Eventually, and not without trepidation, I wrote to our local constabulary. I need not have worried because they could not have been more helpful. I really enjoyed meeting with the young police sergeant. (Doctors and policeman are all getting younger these days even if it is only in my eyes!). I learned all sorts of details which may have seemed insignificant, but which I could only learn from a person genuinely interested in his work and doing it on a daily basis.
                In conclusion I have to say research is never finished. My next project is to discover the effects and emotions of losing a limb. Romance? Where is the romance in that I hear you cry. All I can say is that my characters do have problems to overcome but they also have courage and hope and love.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Cast in Stone

I’m very excited to report one of my poems is part of an award-winning art project in Stranraer, south west Scotland.

Dumfries & Galloway-based sculptor Matt Baker won the prestigious bi-annual Saltire Society Award for Art in Architecture Scotland for the Castle Square project in Stranraer. Part of the regeneration of the town centre the project has transformed the space around the Castle of St John.  Matt worked on the project with fellow Galloway-based artist David Ralston and architects Smith Scott Mullan Associates (project architect – Rachel Simmonds).
Matt asked permission to engrave my poem, Ocean, on a retaining wall of local whinstone or greywacke, rock which originally formed the seabed of the ocean which separated Scotland and England about 400 million years ago. When the two land masses crashed together the seabed was pushed up out of the water and turned into the hard grey rock which forms the Southern uplands of Scotland. Stranraer is at one end of the Southern Uplands and Berwickshire the other. The idea of the wall is that it changes in feel from ‘ocean’ at one end to ‘hill’ at the other and this is reflected in the form of the whinstone along its length – changing from its slate-like form to large boulders.

The poem, called Ocean, was originally written for a project on which Matt and I collaborated at the Cairnsmore of Fleet Nature Reserve in south west Scotland. Matt created five sculptures, which have been placed in various parts around the nature reserve and I wrote a short collection of poems.

Here is Ocean, which Matt chose to have engraved in the wall.

Turned inside out, upside down,
ocean’s floor rose into light,
seabed became mountain peak,
rocky crags where peregrine fly
and ravens cry.

Ocean and other poems will appear in my first full poetry collection, called Thousands Pass Here Every Day, which will be published in 2012 by Indigo Dreams. As soon as I know the publication date, I’ll be on here telling everyone!

News of the Saltire Society Award can be found here: and the background to the project is here:

In my last blog I wrote about taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo and my conviction I would complete it this year, after failing in previous years. Well, despite my best efforts I gave up half way through. I take my hat off to those who managed to write 50,000 words in November and I am sure they must be experiencing a wonderful feeling of satisfaction at their achievement. It took me several days to shake of my feelings of worthlessness at not making it to the end of the month. On a more positive note I do have 20,000 plus words of a novel, which I hope to work on after I’ve recovered from the trauma of being, yet again, a failure.  I am NOT going to try again. If anyone hears me even considering signing up for NaNoWriMo next year please step in and remind me of how miserable it made me this year.