Saturday, 26 March 2011

Time's arrow

This is a post about scheduling. Fittingly, it's late.

When you're attempting to turn some words into some pages, probably the most important thing is making sure you know when everything is supposed to happen. Setting the deadlines is even more important than keeping to them: as long as you've got a finish date you know when to start panicking. Er, preparing for press. Not panicking. Publishers don't panic, they just get serious.

Actually, the joy of working on a one-off or annual publication with nothing else on your plate is that the dates aren't quite so ferociously important. If you have a long list of publications with a couple of deadlines every week, you can't afford mistakes. Here, though, a few days' delay makes little difference. However, it's still important to have a rough idea of when things are to happen.

The first thing to establish is when you want a van to turn up and dump a crate of books on your doorstep. In our case, we wanted early June. Some other university anthologies release around September, and while I like the idea of co-ordinating to generate wider exposure for creative writing MAs as a whole, since this was our first year it made sense to aim for release while everyone was still at university. Our dissertations (or 'novels', if you like) aren't due until September, but university teaching finishes in June, and after that there'll be a tiny diaspora as we wander off all over the place and go back to something approaching real life. So to make sure everyone is still around, the release date for the Manchester Anthology 2011 is early June.

With that approximately set, a press date could be worked out. For a short print run like this it might take a week to print and a week to deliver. Sometimes quicker, sometimes much slower, depending on all sorts of things from sluggish production (which naturally I will blame on something else. Maybe piskies) to the whole print run being bought up and pulped by the Ministry of Defence. Y'know, purely hypothetically.

Adding a week on for paranoia time, it seemed sensible for press to be around three weeks before the date we want the thing released. I've always been a fan of Friday press dates, because it means that after the raging horror of last-minute problems (first rule of publishing club: something will go wrong) you can go to the pub and not come out until everything is better.

Taking those estimates into account, that gives a press date of, oh. The thirteenth of May. Friday the thirteenth of May.

I'm not superstitious, okay? *hides under desk*

Right. That's the release date and the press date. The next one is the copy deadline. This is the date by which all the lovely authors have to hand their stuff in. Thankfully, short pieces of fiction like this aren't too hard to lay out. They require care, certainly, but basically it's pages of text. Equally, with serious writery types like this lot, all the copy should arrive in pretty good condition (right guys? Right?), so this isn't going to require arduous subbing and repeated proofing. With these advantages in mind, it sounds about right to go for a couple of weeks to proof and a week to slam it all into layout.

Working back from the press deadline, this gives the 22nd of April. When I worked with lawyers we used to have to add on another month or so to take their inevitable tardiness into account, but I trust writers, so the 22nd of April it is.

Time to send an e-mail...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Everything in its right place

What is this?

Why, it's a copy of Adobe InDesign, one of several ferociously expensive lumps of software designed to turn words into books. Using the basic features lets you make page layouts fairly easily, but there are gigantorific numbers of tiny tweaky features hanging about beneath the surface if you want to get stuck in to things like ligature choices and interactive PDF design. Frankly though, I don't.

I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty of layout, because there's already masses of that all over the internet. Basically, I needed two kinds of pages: the standard ones filled with bits of story, and the front page for each author, with their photo and biography. The standard pages came first, and ended up looking like this:

Or, without guides:

The font is Palatino Linotype, which is a fairly typical choice for a book. It's clear, moderately pretty, sensibly spaced and I have a good collection of character sets for it, meaning I don't have to worry about not having proper italics or bold lettering.

Publishing being a high-tech industry, I came up with size, borders and spacing by pulling books off my shelf, deciding which ones looked pretty, then measuring bits of them with a ruler. I wouldn't care to speak for the industry as a whole, but I suspect I'm not the only one who does this.

Once those were put together I moved on to the front page. This needed a heading, a photo box, a biography section and a smaller box for contact details. It came out like this.

Or, without guides:

One thing these images reveal is that an empty template doesn't do much to demonstrate how things will really look. So, to test things out, I borrowed the opening of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and slammed it into the template. Here, as the philosopher said, is one I made earlier:

As you can see, our Thom is pretty hot on Dan-Brown-style two-page chapters, and someone needs to take him aside and tell him about dialogue. Apart from that, though, he'll do for an example.

Incidentally, apologies for the mugshot. Malory was notoriously unphotogenic, so he's had to settle for an artist's impression. This artist's impression was put together in Adobe Illustrator, which came with my copy of InDesign as part of the Adobe Creative Suite Design Standard Edition. If you are observant you may notice that I'm not very good at Illustrator. Technically it's a fairly snazzy bit of art software, but as far as I'm concerned it's Microsoft Paint with more buttons (*hopes no future job interviewers read this paragraph*).

This design will probably be tweaked over the coming weeks. In particular, I'm not happy with the contact details box or the position of the picture borders. However, that is far from urgent, and for now this design should suffice. The important thing is that this gives a reasonable estimate of words to a page, and this means I can come up with an approximate word count for the writers. See next week, when scheduling starts happening.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

When size matters

Once everyone was signed up, it was time to work out how to put this anthology thing together.

The main aim is to create a print quality paperback book - the kind of thing that sits on a bookshelf with all the other paperbacks without being bullied because it doesn't have a penguin on the spine.

Helpfully, many moons ago, all the paperbacks got together in a forest clearing and had a huge argument about size. Eventually, here in the UK, they reached something close to an agreement. There is variation for small presses, US publishers and large volumes, but on the whole 130mm by 190mm has become standard*. I don't know who decided this, or how the regular width became came to be 130mm instead of 125mm or 135mm, but I'm glad it happened. It makes things easier all-round, from printing to designing to shelf-stacking.

Oh, on a related topic, does anyone know who decided that loaves of bread were 800g? I've always wanted to know ('always' may not, strictly speaking, be true). In my head it's down to a sinister cabal of international mega-bakers meeting in a secret bunker under the Tower of London, but I appreciate that this isn't very likely. The Tower of London is so old hat. These days all the cool conspiracies happen on secret desert installations, or in mysterious shady corners of the internet.

Anyway, after the page size came book length. With thirty-one writers, plus scrappy bits like an intro, prelims (more on these later) and author biographies, ultra-narrow isn't an option. It's all very well trying to catch agents' attention, but chucking them a couple of brief paragraphs by each writer is going to be an unsatisfying experience for all involved. Also, since we want people to buy the thing, a bit of heft might make it a bit more tempting.

On the other hand, we don't want a doorstop, or something that's more useful for building with than reading. Sticking with a rough estimate for now, a length of around 350 pages seemed like a reasonable compromise: not something you need a forklift truck to pick up, but not something skinny as a Topman trouser-leg. That's roughly the size of an average novel, which again will help this look like a professional job.

This might all seem vague and pointless, but having basic estimates like these is important for the detailed planning that follows. With an approximate idea of the size and shape you can start gathering print estimates (and thus leap into the mysterious land of budgeting), you can start putting together some page templates, and you can work out what you need to request from authors, and, even more importantly, when you want it to arrive.

Believe it or not, those will be the next three blog posts. Unless I forget, or get distracted, or have a better idea. Because that's the other thing this publishing lark teaches you pretty sharpish: sometimes you need to be ready to change things as you go.

* There were going to be some pretty pictures demonstrating this, but the camera on my telephone is sulking, so you'll just have to believe me. Or look at your own shelves, I suppose. Either way I'm disappointed. I'd gone and arranged my bookshelf in colour order and everything.

Friday, 11 March 2011

All shall have prizes

Once the anthology was narrowed down to prose there were still a few troublesome decisions to make before any real work could begin. One significant point was the question of inclusion.

There were suggestions to limit entry to the anthology in order to focus it on the course's best work and to make sure recipients weren't overwhelmed and left uninterested by the sheer number of writers. However, in the end this idea was abandoned and the decision made to let in everyone who  wanted to be included. After all, it's up to readers to decide what they like best: we're (mostly) unpublished wannabes - it's not up to us to judge who's the best. Sure, we could have argued about it or asked some of the tutors to decide, but in the end this would have led to bitter squabbling, wanton hatred and possibly fisticuffs, or one of those special business meetings that happens by a river-bank at dawn, attended by a doctor and a priest. I've read The Information: I know how this goes. I'm all for literary feuds (I don't know about the others, but I'm certainly sizing people up to see who's most likely to respond to snide remarks in the comments section below The Guardian's review of their first book), but I reckon it's safer to wait until after we've actually got ourselves published. Call me risk-averse, go on.

The same argument applied to ordering the contents. Most anthologies and other fiction collections are ordered according to the whims and theories and prejudices of the editors. There are all sorts of discussions about which bits of books get the  most attention (people reading magazines backwards, and so on), but here it seemed fairest and most sensible to bow to the tyranny of the alphabet. Although being called Alec I was tempted to press for first names...

But no. Surnames it is. From A to Z, or, specifically, Bowerman to White, barring anyone deciding that they now write under the name Alfred Aardvark.

And in fact, you can see the list of everyone who's going to be included up there in the top right where it says 'The authors'. Or you can click here, because the internet's kind like that. Over the next few months, as we veer towards publication, I'll be posting biographies so you can see the sorts of folks who'll be included.

Next week, posts on shape, size and scheduling. It's a seriously sibilant, er, sevenday.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

An apology for poetry

Whatever Robbie Burns and conspiratorial mice might say, plans are good. Books need them. Otherwise all the pages come out at the wrong time, the wrong way up, and in the wrong order, like an experimental novel from the sixties that comes in a shoe box. And that's not what we're up to here, as far as I know. Printers charge extra for shoe boxes.

So, a plan.

The general aim is to make an anthology representing the work of the Manchester MA course. That doesn't narrow things down much: Manchester University loves its creative writing, and has a whole Centre for New Writing which runs events and workshops throughout the year for everyone including undergraduates, postgraduates and sometimes even real people from the outside world - you know, those ones with jobs and lives and stuff.

To narrow this down, we decided to limit this to just the prose side of the MA course. There are plenty of hotshot poets here, studying under John McAuliffe and Vona Groarke, and it was tough deciding to leave them out, but it also made the project much easier. After all, if we want to promote our work by sending it to agents, publishers, reviewers and so forth, we want the package that lands on their desks to be relevant. There's no point sending poetry to someone who only works with novels. I mean, they might rather enjoy it, and be jolly pleased by the whole thing, but from a practical perspective it isn't very helpful.

This was supported by the specialist decision-making technique I turned to whenever things got iffy: what would UEA do? It doesn't quite fit on a wristband, but it's a good motto for the project. In this case, the UEA answer is to create two separate anthologies, one for prose and one for poetry, so the work can be distributed wherever it's most relevant. That way poetry shacks don't have to wade through stories, and novelists' agents don't see line breaks and panic and hurl the book through a window.

Seems like a good idea. Unfortunately two books means twice as much work, money, chaos and complication. So, for this year at least, there'll be no Manchester MA poetry anthology.

Where are we then? Yes: anthology. MA. Prose. Stories and that. There will be some. They will be good.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


There're plenty of ways of getting a book made.

One is to construct a full-on publishing company with years of experience, an international reputation, and oak-panelled back rooms filled with old white men smoking and muttering about how publishing hasn't been the same since moveable type came along.

Alternatively, you can track down one of these shiny self-publishing companies, shower them with riches, post them all your stuff in a brown envelope and watch as they turn it into a book. This isn't a bad idea for this sort of project: you get plenty of control, and you get someone else handling some of the logistics in exchange for, well, money. And that's the problem: we're students, so we don't have money. Worse: we're postgraduate student writers. Point more than two ale taps at us and we might ask which one's cheapest.

Then there are small presses. Small presses are lovely things, and the modern world with all its electrickery and internet cleverness is making them more viable by the year. Sadly, they're also businesses, so they're unlikely to be terribly interested in a wonky little project like this that intends to give away a hefty proportion of its print run to agents and reviewers and whatnot.

Ideally what we want is a cross between a small press and a self-publishing company: our very own small press - a pet one that we keep in a hutch in the garden and let out to run around at the weekends. So we have made a small press. A very small press. In fact, it's a laptop, plus a few e-mail addresses belonging to people who happen to run printing companies.

Why this, then? Well, partly that aforementioned electrickery and internet cleverness. With a bit of publishing experience and some software there's nothing stopping a little project like this from cutting out all the middle-folk. Making a regular paperback book isn't necessarily that hard these days (unless you're a tree). It's fiddly and takes work, but the barriers to entry are surprisingly vaultable.

The advantages of this are that it saves cash, gives us complete control over the process, and, most of all, is kind of fun. Making books is cool. Not asymmetrical-haircut cool, and definitely not trendy brand-name cool, but geeky cool. And that's the best sort, isn't it? No, don't answer that.

The downsides are that this takes time and effort, and there's a horrible possibility that if it goes wrong I will end up sat on a street corner with a cardboard sign saying 'Will proofread for food' (I will anyway, by the way, particularly if the food is cake). Mainly the time and effort, though. And hell, I'm a student: it's not like I have anything better to do.

So self-self-publishing it is. Let's see how this goes.