Going Grey – we have a narrator

I heard today that the Audible edition of GOING GREY will be narrated by the excellent Euan Morton, the voice of my Halo books. (And, of course, a very fine actor.) I'm over the moon. This is the guy I really,really wanted, and I was worried in case he wasn't available.

When I first discussed the book with Audible and the subject of narrators arose, I only had one name on my wish list. This book really matters to me: it's more than creator-owned, it's my own product. Audible said they'd see if Euan could do it. Now I can breathe easy again.

I have Macmillan Audio to thank for introducing me to Euan's talent. When we started on the Kilo Five audiobooks, I discussed the casting with Laura Wilson, Director of Production, and the particular challenges of the characters; the novels were full of different national and regional accents, from Russian and Australian to some hard-to-do English ones. Not many people can cover all those convincingly, and sometimes it's better to read something straight rather than get it less than perfect. But Laura sent me an audio clip to check out. It was Euan Morton, and I was blown away.

A narrator can make or break a book; they're not just reading, they're doing a very specialised kind of acting, and they add an extra dimension to the whole story. When I started getting mail from fans about how vividly Euan had portrayed the Kilo Five cast, I knew we had something special going on there. He really had nailed the characters, not just the accents but their personalities and the whole vibe of the books as well. So given GOING GREY's cast of English and American characters, and the nature of the dialogue, I knew exactly who I needed to bring them to life.

And here's the funny thing: while I'm writing characters, I usually daren't listen to the audio versions in case they don't match the voices in my head (no, not those kinds of voices... ) and I lose the characterisation. I couldn't listen to the Gears audiobooks because they weren't the voices in the game, and what I heard in my head while I was writing were the voices of John, Fred, Carlos, Nan, Jamie, and Lester. It's like having an image of a character from a book in your mind and then seeing the movie, and the actor playing that character isn't how you imagined things at all. It disorients you. It's the same for writers like me. But I'll be perfectly fine listening to Euan while I carry on with the Ringer series.

I'll let you know when the audiobook's available for pre-order. Meanwhile, check out Euan's credits: I didn't realise he'd appeared in Taggart, too! God, I love Taggart. I'm a sucker for detective shows. "There's been a murrrrder!"

Treat of the day

Comics, as I tell everybody who'll listen, are possibly the most enjoyable things a writer can do. Not only is the writing bit a blast; you also get regular thrills when the various stages of the art land in your inbox. Today I have more great pencils from Steve Kurth. All this is repeated when I get the inks, and then again when I see what the colourist (hi Jeff!) and the lettering guy have done. Just opening the file feels like Christmas. However well you know the art team, and however detailed your script may be, you never know quite how it's going to look until you open it, and therein lies the thrill. It's magical. It's a glimpse into how someone else sees the world, and that's priceless.

Not shiny, not absorbent

Having control of your product is a wonderful thing. The novelty hasn't worn off yet.

I just received my first copies of GOING GREY from the printer. I've grown used to seeing trade paperbacks (the larger format ones that come in a wide range of sizes) printed on paper stock with the texture and grim utilitarian colour of recycled toilet tissue, and if you're an author who signs books in yer actual liquid ink with a proper pen, the implications of that become immediately apparent. It has all the bleeding and feathering behaviour of blotting paper without any useful absorbency. And it just doesn't look or feel like a classy experience.

So I opted for white paper instead of cream when I did the specs for the print order, making my judgment on the basis of That Which Had Gone Before. (What we used to call in my TV days getting a white balance, in this case thinking white was Average TPB White.) When I opened the box, though, it really was strikingly white. I mean white. The white you get when you crack open a ream of printer paper. It takes ink pretty well, too. Now that's what I'd always expected to see in a fancy TPB. Off-white rough paper was what I associated with MMPBs ( mass market paperbacks). MMPBs are going the way of the dodo, so the TPB seems to be filing its niche in the dead tree ecology.

It's a quality cover, too, a nice velvety matt. I need to do some adjustment of the artwork on the spine fold, but that's the joy of using CreateSpace. I can change anything, anytime, anyhow, and I don't have to pulp a warehouse-load of books to do it. They're not cheap to produce, but you do get the feeling that you're selling something that'll last a few years and not turn yellow and crumble after a couple of reads.

Overall, I'm finding that this is a much more civilised way to ply my trade. I shall now take a break and make some carrot sorbet. No, I've never tried it before. But I have the ol' Gelato Chef up and running again, and a bottle of carrot juice, so I thought – why not fling it in, throw the switch, and see what emerges?

Taking on G.I. Joe

As you might have already divined from Comic Book Resources, I'm writing the new G.I. Joe comic series for IDW.

Before you ask, no, I didn't get product placement bucks for the scene in GOING GREY where vets Rob and Mike debate about whether having G.I. Joe/ Action Man as kids shaped their identity as men. I'd written that just before I got the call out of the blue from IDW, at which point I invested in a new tinfoil hat and blacked out all my windows. Come on, you have to admit that's spooky. But it does keep happening to me.

The first person to joke about real gripping hands and Action Man deserters gets a serious smacking. No, seriously, this is deeply enjoyable work. Every franchise says it's a cultural icon, but G.I. Joe really is. The archetype is embedded in our language.

Like facing a fast bowler

I'm way behind the curve on this. The trade paperback edition of GOING GREY is already up on Amazon UK. It's not up on Amazon US yet (I may well blink and miss it) and it can take up to eight weeks to appear in other catalogues, but I really hadn't allowed for the fact that direct publishing is largely served by companies who do things faster than they promise they will. I wasn't expecting to see the paperback on sale anywhere until Friday: I'd expected the iTunes edition to take about the same time. But, like the Kindle edition, it's all beating the estimate dates by a long way. There's a lesson in there about managing expectation.

If you've been used to a culture where "next week" actually means "maybe in a couple of months, if ever," then this seriously messes with your concept of space and time. In fact, the whole calendar that's shaped my life for ten years no longer applies. There's no street date (a set date for a book to go on sale) that has to be hit because you've got just a few weeks to sell a lot or else the title vanishes into the back of the store and gets returned for pulping. Nothing has to be coordinated; no opportunities get missed. It is, in PR speak, a soft launch. I don't have to think about the NYT bestseller list because if you choose not to have an ISBN on an edition – there isn't one on the Kindle or iTunes editions – no trade organisation can track your sales, not that they all get tracked anyway. I wouldn't have bothered with one on the paperback of GOING GREY but it's the only way a reader can place an order if they don't shop at Amazon.

So this business is all between the writer, the reader, and the retailer. And you just log in to your reports dashboard and see what's selling. It's disorienting and liberating at the same time. It's like a parallel universe.

Eventually, the various editions available via Amazon will be accessible from the same page. That's quite a system they've got there. I'm impressed to see it working from this side of the fence instead of the one that buys 12-packs of Diet Kinnie.

Which reminds me: I'm down to my last six bottles.

UPDATE, 1817, June 17: y'know, I can't keep up with this. No sooner were the pixels dry on this blog than the Amazon US page for the paperback appeared, and it was already rolled up with the KIndle edition on the same page. I need to sit down and do something slower, like Formula One or something.

This won't hurt a bit

Yes, yes, very impressive, but how am I going to receive my messages from the mothership now?

'The high-pitched whine of the dental drill could soon become just an unpleasant memory after the unveiling of a new technique that rebuilds teeth with painless electrical pulses.' (Sky News)

It shows you all the valley

It's been a watershed week. I've learned to do a lot of new and previously impossible things, which is good, because there's nothing like learning radically new skills for keeping the brain in shape. When I've decompressed a bit, I'll share a few stories with you. Right now, GOING GREY is finally out, meaning that it's either on sale already in the Kindle store or due out as a paperback next week, then as an iTunes book, and eventually as an Audible audiobook. So I'm switching back to another live job on my desk, which is a new comic series that'll be announced next week.

I had some near-disasters when the cover and interiors for GOING GREY didn't materialise, so I had to start from scratch a few days before the deadline and do it myself with the aid of a good buddy who cleaned up my HTML formatting and other technical messes after me. You know all those jobs I've had in all those different branches of the media over the decades? Well, now I'm glad that I had them, even if some of them made me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork at the time. All those print, design, and marketing skillz were dusted off and deployed. And I met my deadline, because I'm still an old journo at heart, and that's what journos do. It still feels primally satisfying to hit something on time no matter what.

When my techno-design-whizz buddy is ready to be outed, I'll name him so other authors wanting his services can get in touch. He needs to recover from my onslaught first. But he's good, and you'll want to hire him. Just remember that I saw him first and I call dibs.

The weird thing is that however frenzied the process became, it was still nowhere near the amount of hassle of a traditional publishing cycle working well. (And "well" is not the default for Trad Pub.) Indie publishing is actually enjoyable, even the bits that go wrong and need fixing, and, more to the point, it's utterly transparent. I'm going through something of a self-bashing phase at the moment, berating myself for not having jumped sooner. But it's not my more recent experiences that soured me, although they were the wake-up call that told me to get out from under before it was too late : it was looking back at everything that had been done to me since I was first published ten years ago.

A line from a song by the wonderful Clive James sums it up perfectly – it's the last hill that shows you all the valley. I realised that one way or another, I'd worked for all the Big Five, the huge media corporations* that dominate traditional publishing, and for the most part it was a less than pleasant experience, relieved only by finding that I had so many terrific readers. Over the next few weeks, I'll share a few stories that explain what I mean, and shed some light on things like "nurturing" and royalty statements. Traditional publishing is a broken business model, and it broke itself long before Amazon got big enough to challenge it.

So I'm now waiting for a box of trade paperbacks. You always get a box of author copies for a title. As they're part of a trad pub contract, i.e. part of the payment, I never turned them down even when my home began looking like a book warehouse, although the charity shops around here have done well out of it. Now my author copies are part of my business costs, so I won't despair about finding storage space for them. I suppose that was an epiphany on my indie publishing road.

Picking a trim size for a book – i.e. deciding how big it's going to be as an object – is pretty key to the reader experience. GOING GREY is almost the same dimensions as the trade paperback of MORTAL DICTATA, just slightly longer and a bit thicker, but not too big for comfortable handling for most people. How customers use things – books, games, utensils – is something that everyone who creates Stuff should consider first. How does your customer use your product? To put it another way, if they love a shampoo but can't open the cap, you've failed as a shampoo manufacturer even if the bottles are made by someone else. It's common sense. Remove barriers to use. That's the heart of all design and good interaction. It's also the heart of good business.

If people can only snatch minutes at a time to play games or read a book, writers can make it easier for them by dividing the content into smaller chunks; if they have long, tedious periods to fill, and they can't be seen sitting down and reading, or they drive long distances, then a nice long audiobook is ideal. You get the idea. Look at what ticks you off when you're using something and consider your own Stuff in that light.

Some writers might be appalled by the idea that usability can matter almost as much as the content, but I'm a storyteller, and that means I want to engage with an audience. I pay attention to whatever "delivery factors" help them enjoy my stuff rather than create a barrier. Right now the feedback I get is that my readers want a big world to immerse in and to get to know the characters, so I'll keep doing long books with long chapters that enable that.

Now that I've got no constraints with my fiction, though, I'll start looking at other formats for future work like serialisation, audio chapters, and so on. If it can be recorded or enshrined in a document file, it can be done and distributed. So let me know if there's a format you like and I'll take a look at doing fiction that might fit it.

Yeah, it's a brave new world, all right. I was just late struggling up that hill to see where it was.

(*Please don't pity big publishers because Amazon is eating their lunch. These aren't cute small presses living on handouts and arts grants, folks. They're part of multi-billion-dollar international corporations that also own news media, and the record profits they're making sure as hell don't go to the writers who create their goods for them. Judge the news you hear about publishing accordingly. Follow the money. Ask awkward questions.)

GOING GREY – out now, at the speed of 'Zon.

Whoa! That was fast. I blinked and almost missed it. GOING GREY parachuted into the Kindle store at 1512 GMT. (I was busy filling out an industry survey at the time the notification arrived, working myself into a froth about the proposed ECL scheme with my blood pressure well into four figures.) If this is the brave new world of publishing, I like it. A few hours ago, I was tinkering with the source document: now it's on sale. How very modern.

In fact, it's so fast that I haven't finished gussying up this web site, which I've revamped again to make it a better experience on mobile devices. So forgive me for any odd stock images on banners and so on.

I'll be back to much more frequent blogging now – stand by for some anecdotes and beans-spilling about the industry.

But for now – buy! Put food on my table! Please!



It'll be out on other channels in various formats in due course but as the speed of 'Zon has caught me with my pants down, I'll have to get up to date with that later.