Category Archives: publishing

Acquired by Unsung Stories

I’m excited to announce that the first book in the Saskia Brandt series, Déjà Vu, has been acquired by George Sandison at Unsung Stories. This is a new imprint and I’m lucky to be one of the launch titles along­side m’colleague Aliya Whiteley.

I’m cur­rently work­ing on an updated edi­tion of Déjà Vu and, with any luck, I’ll be pub­lish­ing sequels Flashback and The Amber Rooms with Unsung too.

Exciting times.

The Short Version

The author Julian Gough writes today in the Guardian that Amazon’s short Kindle Singles are the future of pub­lish­ing. By this, he means that the optimal size deman­ded by pub­lish­ers (from about 80,000 words to–I’m guessing–150,000) has been estab­lished as the norm because books need to look value for money but can­not be prac­tic­ally bound at ginorm­ous sizes.

I agree. One of the most effect­ive books I read over the last couple of years is True Grit. It was mar­keted as a novel but, really, it’s novella length. There have been a few occa­sions when, read­ing a book, I’ve got the impres­sion that a sub­plot has been added to increase its bulk. Now, that’s not neces­sar­ily a bad thing, and if a book needs work like that a care­ful editor can sug­gest it to an author, but I think you need to think twice before insert­ing mater­ial willy-nilly.

I wanted to add this: Shorter works give writers the oppor­tun­ity for a faster turn­around, the oppor­tun­ity for which is not to be underestimated.

Advertising for Independent Writers

Via Alex Roddie, I came across an art­icle on Cult of Me that offers some thoughts on online advert­ising. This is one of many things that inde­pend­ent writers need to con­sider, and there isn’t much data about the effect­ive­ness of dif­fer­ent sites and advert­ising methods.

My own advert­ising has been lim­ited to Goodreads and Facebook. Goodreads is expens­ive, as Michael Brookes says, and prob­ably not all that effect­ive. Facebook has a nice inter­face and allows you tar­get your advert so pre­cisely that you’ll feel dirty. (I did, and left Facebook shortly afterwards.)

What is Success?

I’ve been away look­ing at the Eiger, so my post on J K Rowling’s recent exper­i­ence with a pseud­onym comes a little late. However, given that the suc­cess or fail­ure of writ­ing careers turn on such mat­ters, I’m going to add my tup­pence worth here.

To recap: J K Rowling, whose has global sales of 450 mil­lions books (accord­ing to one source), pub­lished a novel called “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseud­onym Richard Galbraith. The novel received warm reviews but did not sell many cop­ies. The BBC reports the fig­ure as 1500.

Whatever the sales were, they shot up once the true iden­tity of the author was revealed.

One of the most inter­est­ing responses to the story–or, more pre­cisely, to the effect of the story–was from the writer James Smythe.

In his post An Open Letter to New and Would-be Writers, James makes the point that we should not define suc­cess quant­it­at­ively (para­dox­ical though that might sound). The book is already a suc­cess if a pub­lisher picks it up and runs with it. James cites the example of his own book, The Machine, which has not taken off as well as it might.

Publishing is just like any other media busi­ness: you pro­mote some­thing, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a suc­cess. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to pray­ing for mir­acles, or rely­ing on blind luck.

I thought James’s post was inter­est­ing in sev­eral ways. First, it’s hon­est. Second, he sounds like he means it. Third, he may be right.

What is suc­cess? Like porn, it’s dif­fi­cult to define, but easy to spot. Stephen King is suc­cess­ful. James Smythe is suc­cess­ful. Me…

I think all writers struggle with this. I’d say my writ­ing is suc­cess­ful in a nar­row sense. I sell books, get reviewed (only by cus­tom­ers on Amazon and Goodreads, but they’re hon­est and straight­for­ward). I’m with a lit­er­ary agency who count Pulitzer win­ners among their cli­ents. I receive emails from happy read­ers (the dis­gruntled never say hello).

Smythe ends with this:

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bullshit.

I used to think that. Now, I fear, I’m older and more cyn­ical. If you can sur­vive on intent, more power to you. However, I do agree that, in the case of a work of fic­tion, it either suc­ceeds by its own lights or it does not; never mind the Booker Prize, is the work true to itself? Did you fix its prob­lems? Did you care about it?

I care. Still.

Creating an Animated Banner Advert

There are sev­eral joys pecu­liar to the inde­pend­ent writer. One of them is the respons­ib­il­ity of advert­ising. A few weeks back, I made the decision to plough more of the earn­ings from my books into these adverts. One of the places I wanted to advert­ise is a site call, a busy hub full of Kindle writers and readers.

What Goes into the Ad?

It needs to cap­ture interest with min­imal inform­a­tion. I kicked around some ideas using the ‘rule of three’: this, that and the other, or ‘not this, not that, but the other’. Since I don’t really have graphic illus­tra­tion skills bey­ond cre­at­ing book cov­ers, I’d need to use text. I came up with:

One heroine

Three books

Lost in time

Overall, I’m happy with them. They’re short. They tell you that the main char­ac­ter is a woman, that there are three books (so far) worth of story, and that the genre is sci­ence fic­tion (time travel).

My girl­friend looked at a draft of the fin­ished GIF and said that read­ers wouldn’t know any­thing about the qual­ity of the books. I agreed, and added a quote from an SFX of Déjà Vu as a ‘zero slide’ at the beginning.

How Does it Look?

The stand­ard dimen­sions for a ban­ner ad is 728 x 90 pixels. Once I’d stuffed that full of my text, there was no room for the book jack­ets, and it gen­er­ally looked shite. #advertfail

Fine, I thought. I’ll just cre­ate an anim­ated GIF.

For the unini­ti­ated, an anim­ated GIF (pro­nounced ‘fish’) is a little video.

Creation: Keynote

I don’t have any fancy anim­a­tion soft­ware. I do, how­ever, use Apple Keynote to give psy­cho­logy lec­tures. Keynote is a par­tic­u­larly advanced present­a­tion plat­form that has text effects, slide trans­itions, and tim­ings. Crucially, it can also export a present­a­tion as a Quicktime movie file. That file can then be dropped into a Mac app called GIFBrewery to make an anim­ated GIF.

  • Open Keynote and select one of the stand­ard templates

  • Next, you’ll want to have Keynote change its slide size to 728 x 90. Guess what? It won’t, because 90 is too small. You will need to cre­ate a slide with the ban­ner ad pro­por­tions but more pixels. I’d sug­gest 2184 x 270.

Keynote slide size

  • Create as many slides as you like. Each one of these will be a ‘moment’ in your anim­a­tion. For my own ban­ner, there were seven moments.


  • Set the tim­ings and trans­itions between the slides. You’ll see that, for the example below, I’ve set the trans­ition between the first slide and the second to be the ‘sparkle’ effect; the sparkle moves left to right; and the trans­ition activ­ates auto­mat­ic­ally after three seconds.


  • Once you’ve set up auto­matic trans­itions between slides, Keynote should be able to play through the ‘present­a­tion’ without manual inter­ven­tion. About five-ten seconds long is prob­ably enough—but if your ban­ner ad is awe­some, maybe people will watch it for longer. Who knows.

  • Now export the present­a­tion as a Quicktime video. Go to the File Menu > Export > Quicktime. Keynote will offer the fol­low­ing options, which are set accord­ing to those I used for my own banner:

QT Options

Creation: GIFBrewery

The Quicktime file is some­thing that GIFBrewery can hap­pily use to pro­duce your banner.

GIFBrewery has many options, which you can explore. The two main things to point out are:

  • Resize’ will allow you to reduce the pixel dimen­sions of you video. If you’ve impor­ted from Keynote, these dimen­sions will be too large, so here is where you can reduce it to 728 x 90 pixels.

  • The ‘GIF prop­er­ties’ pop-up allows you to tweak the frame-rate (and there­fore over­all speed) of the GIF. You will also find options for redu­cing the num­bers of col­ours. Remember that the webpage host­ing your advert needs the GIF to have a very small file size. In the case of, this is less than 60K.


Wrapping Up

Here is the fin­ished GIF:

2013 05 20 22 24 09 SB

I hope that’s help­ful. It took me a couple of nights of pokery, not to men­tion jig­gery, to real­ise that I could use Keynote to pro­duce a movie file, and then a good piece of soft­ware to gen­er­ate the GIF.

If you want to use my files as a head start, here they are:

The GFBrewery set­tings file

The Keynote present­a­tion file

The Keynote Quicktime export

Waterboarded by an Angel

M’colleague and gen­er­ally excel­lent writer Aliya Whiteley is cel­eb­rat­ing the launch of her new short story col­lec­tion, Witchcraft in the Harem. How to describe it? Well, World Fantasy Award win­ner Lavie Tidhar says:

The exper­i­ence of read­ing this col­lec­tion is like being water­boarded by an angel. Shocking, heart­break­ing and laugh-out-loud funny, this is some of the best writ­ing I’ve ever seen. If you like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, you will love Witchcraft in the Harem.

I had a high old time on Monday night at the launch. Given that I’m talk­ing occa­sion­ally on this blog about the cre­at­ive pro­cess, I thought it would be nice to ask Aliya about how you get the full world feel in some­thing as small as a short story. Take it away, Aliya.

How do you make a short story feel full?

Thomas Hardy was an amaz­ing nov­el­ist. You only have to read the first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge to real­ise you’re enjoy­ing the powers of a mas­ter of descrip­tion. And there’s a lot of descrip­tion to get through. I mean enjoy. There are long para­graphs about the Wessex coun­tryside and the mean­ing­ful weather. However much you love Hardy, you have to admit that the mod­ern taste in prose has moved away from such lov­ing build-up. A book that starts with three thou­sand words describ­ing the land­scape is unlikely to meet with the approval of a big pub­lisher nowadays.

Description gives depth, but if you’re work­ing on a short story, then you need to provide that roun­ded feel­ing in other ways. And if you write flash fic­tion, then you need to cre­ate the entire world in under 1000 words and lose none of the real­ity. So how do you do it? Here’s some help­ful advice. Bearing in mind that I don’t give good advice and can­not be trusted.

Set your story at the bot­tom of the ocean.

Deep, see? No, okay, that’s not entirely ser­i­ous. But do set your short story in some place that will be evoc­at­ive with very little work from you. The Orient Express, for instance. Or choose one really good detail and describe that rather than going large-scale. Describing the swivel of the golfer’s hips as he hits his first shot is as mean­ing­ful as writ­ing about all eight­een holes.

Don’t bother to set it anywhere.

If you’ve got bril­liant char­ac­ters, amaz­ing dia­logue, and an excit­ing plot, then let them do all the work for you and for­get describ­ing the col­our of the car­pet. The set­ting doesn’t always mat­ter. Sometimes it’s more power­ful if we’re not provided with a framework.


The first story in my new col­lec­tion is called Galatea. It’s a piece of flash fic­tion about a lonely orphan boy who grows up to be obsessed with naked flesh. There’s no men­tion of the Pygmalion myth in the story but the title brings with it a whole myth­ical set of expect­a­tions that say more than an extra thou­sand words could manage.

Avoid the nat­ural world.

If you find your­self describ­ing the types of trees in the field behind the house the char­ac­ters live in (and they aren’t even look­ing out of the win­dow) then you’re not keep­ing the word count down. Unless you’re writ­ing a story about killer plants or the passing sea­sons or some­thing, obviously.

Use default settings.

When it comes to describ­ing what people look like, there’s very little point unless it’s remark­able. We all assume people look a cer­tain way. Alas, Hollywood-style pleas­ant beauty has won over our ima­gin­a­tions in this regard, so instead of wast­ing time with hair and eye col­ours con­cen­trate on the way the char­ac­ters respond to each other. If they’re attract­ive, don’t bother describ­ing your idea of attract­ive. A reader might hate muscled men or women with long legs. But what hap­pens when they enter the con­ver­sa­tion? That’s more inter­est­ing, and it tells us all we need to know. Then the reader becomes the detect­ive of the story, solv­ing the clues you leave behind. Artfully arrange your bread­crumbs rather than sup­ply­ing a whole loaf of bread. It keeps them hungry and takes up less word­count too.

So that’s what I know about turn­ing a short story into a sat­is­fy­ing and roun­ded exper­i­ence. I’ve set stor­ies in the Canadian Rockies and in Viennese Concert Halls; I’ve used myth­ical fig­ures and fairy tales; I’ve pared back the weather reports and the nat­ural world. Except in the one story that’s set in a cab­bage patch, obvi­ously. And I’ve kept them all short and sweet. Even the one set in the Mariana Trench.

No, okay, I made that bit up. I told you I couldn’t be trusted.

The Amber Rooms Out Now

In May, 2008, I cre­ated a Twitter account for the heroine of my sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, Saskia Brandt. Her first tweet:

Entering St Petersburg via train. There are men from the Third Section in the next car­riage and I think I might need to jump off.

Cut to yes­ter­day after­noon, when I uploaded the final ver­sion of The Amber Rooms to the Kindle store. I still can’t quite believe that the book is out in the world and no longer in my head. For the past five years (begin­ning drafts in 2007), I used most of my spare brain power—and some that wasn’t spare—to fig­ure out solu­tions to plot and char­ac­ter­isa­tion prob­lems. Now, I get my even­ings and week­ends back.

You can down­load The Amber Rooms from the UK or US Amazon stores. Until 25th December, books one and two are free.

Cut to 1907, night, and a train approach­ing St Petersburg. On that train, Saskia Brandt is run­ning for her life.

The Amber Rooms by Ian Hocking

Kindle Select Tips

It was late after­noon yes­ter­day when I remembered that I’d signed up Déjà Vu for a one-day stint as a free­bie. This is pos­sible as part of Amazon’s Kindle Select pro­gramme. There isn’t a huge amount of data avail­able on this, so here are mine.

For the last three months or so, sales of Déjà Vu had been slow­ing (oh so tra­gic­ally, but you’ll hear no com­plaints from me about how well the book has done). In the UK, it’s March-May sales were 426, 124, and 96. For the US, those fig­ures are much smal­ler: 45, 21, and 26. The over­all sales stand at 9000 UK, 1487 US, totalling 10, 505 (the extra 18 come from Germany).

I’ve inter­preted these sales as show­ing suc­cess in the UK and, well, show­ing a lack of it in the US. One of the nice things is that 50% of the people who read Déjà Vu want to buy Flashback, even though it’s £1.20 more expensive.

By the time I remembered about the one-day free­bie, yes­ter­day, Déjà Vu had been ‘selling’ for a few hours in the US. At that point, 576 cop­ies had been moved in the US and only 126 in the UK. This puzzles me a little. Whereas the book doesn’t really sell in the US, there are more people ready to grab it for free. Perhaps, then, it is reas­on­ably attract­ive to the American con­sumer but not so attract­ive that they’re keen to pur­chase in large number.

When I went to bed that even­ing, 2854 had moved in the US and 288 in the UK. This morn­ing, tot­ting up the final fig­ures, the US total was 5713 and the UK total 358. Déjà Vu reached at least num­ber four in both (free) sci­ence fic­tion charts each side of the Atlantic. With caveats, that sug­gests the US Kindle mar­ket is around ten times the size of the UK market.

Overall, then, I’d call it a suc­cess­ful pro­mo­tion. It’s worth bear­ing in mind that not many of those read­ers will read the book. Fewer still, maybe none, will post a review. The last pro­mo­tion I did was for Proper Job, my first — and per­haps last — com­edy novel. That shif­ted many free cop­ies but got no reviews.

How has the Déjà Vu pro­mo­tion impacted on sales? There’s a small effect. It might last a day or two.

I’ve sold 20 cop­ies in the US so far this month, and that com­pares with 26 cop­ies for all of May. Oh, and I see one refund! Flashback sales are up a bit to 5 cop­ies this month; last month it was 15.

In the UK, I’ve sold 25 cop­ies of Déjà Vu in June (cf. 95 last month) and 13 cop­ies of Flashback (cf. 73 last month).

For rank­ings, Déjà Vu is now at 1,997 in the UK, whereas pre­vi­ously it was float­ing around 10,000. It’s at 7,564 in the US, and has been hov­er­ing at 35,000 or so.

There are some stats I could prob­ably com­pute for the effect of the Kindle Select pro­mo­tion, but that would be overkill. Right now, I’d say it’s worth it, and the Kindle Select pro­gramme remains a great tool for authors pub­lish­ing on Amazon.

In terms of max­im­ising the bene­fit of the pro­mo­tion, you should — obvi­ously — try to get the word out on your social net­works without being too much of a tit about it. I try not to be a tit but my Twitter fol­low­ers could prob­ably tell you whether or not I’m suc­ceed­ing. Yesterday, I was lucky that SF Signal retweeted a mes­sage about the pro­mo­tion to almost 7000 fol­low­ers, and I’d be will­ing to bet that con­trib­uted a great deal to the final US fig­ure of 5713.

I guess this is mar­ket­ing, but I prefer to think of it as let­ting people know about a book they might like. A Tweet is a tran­si­ent thing. I’m no fan of spam, and I don’t do newsletters.

Well, peeps, there’re the data. Not sure whether they gen­er­al­ise, but there they are.

Thirsty for Bytes?

It’s not easy being an inde­pend­ent author. By inde­pend­ent, I don’t mean ‘attached to an inde­pend­ent pub­lish­ing house’. I mean hir­ing a proofreader, editor, cover designer, and not being invited to pub­lish­ing shindigs. M’colleague Matt F Curran doesn’t think it’s easy either. He is the brains behind Thirst Editions, a new, vir­tual pub­lish­ing out­fit under whose aus­pices Matt, Aliya Whiteley, Roger Morris, Frances Garrod, and Tim Stretton will be put­ting out a title or two. These authors are not all inde­pend­ent by the above defin­i­tion, but they’ve all had work passed over on the grounds of mass mar­ket appeal rather than qual­ity — and with ebooks and the long tail, qual­ity can now count.

There is no ‘i’ in team. There are, how­ever, three in ‘Thirst Editions’.

I think you know what I mean.

If you don’t, take a look at this post, where Matt out­lines the ethos behind Thirst Editions.

Monday, 23rd April is launch day. My novel Proper Job will be re-published as a Thirst Editions book (reserving Writer As A Stranger for the Saskia Brandt books) at the crazy price of 77p, along with Tim’s Dragonchaser and Aliya’s Mean Mode Median. These last two are also cheap-as-chips.

What are you wait­ing for? We’d appre­ci­ate your support.

Signed by Kneerim & Williams

Well, spin my nipple nuts and send me to Alaska if it’s been almost two weeks since I signed with the Kneerim & Williams lit­er­ary agency. What? Me? A lit­er­ary agent? With my repu­ta­tion for going-it-alonery?

But I am two-and-twenty, gentle reader.

What happened was: Just prior to Christmas, I found myself cor­res­pond­ing with a UK pub­lisher about Déjà Vu. He loved the book, which was hur­ray. But he thought that there was no mar­ket left in the UK, which was boo.

Like the Spanish, I decided to approach the New World.

Given that life is short, I con­tac­ted rather more lit­er­ary agen­cies than I should have; within a few hours I had received one or two offers of rep­res­ent­a­tion and sev­eral more requests for the manu­scripts of Déjà Vu, Flashback and The Amber Rooms.

By the end of the week, I had taken two phone calls — one with each of the agen­cies I wanted most — and was won over by Katherine Flynn and Ike Williams.

So it’s with Kneerim & Williams that I’ll be rest­ing my hat. Katherine will be get­ting back to me with edit­or­ial notes on Déjà Vu quite soon, and we’ll take it from there.


Terribly exicted.