A new cover for The Prospect of this City

Prospect has a new cover. Here it is: 

Hope you like it. I do. The cover's by Kit Foster of Kit Foster Design

The book's as before - I've kept the woodcut-alike frontispiece by Maxim Peter Griffin (which was the previous ebook cover) in both paperback and ebook editions - but the front cover's had a new splash of paint to make it more immediately appealing. I've got a blog post brewing about working how to work out how to self-publish by doing it the tricky way and finding things out for yourself; one aspect of that is the necessity for an immediate cover.

Max (the aforementioned illustrator-brother) and I spent an amusing twenty minutes or so in the local WH Smith going through book covers.

Though there's some great work out there, there's an awful lot of variations upon a theme. Thriller? A silhouette of a bloke on a road (they're called "thrillouettes" in the trade, I'm led to believe). Female protagonist? This year, something involving trees appears the way to go. Of course, there are perennials. A rosy-cheeked young woman with basket in hand if it's a Catherine Cookson-style saga. Armoured fella charging towards you with a battle in the background if it's an action-oriented historical novel (what someone once called the "Andy McStab" approach).         

I've been to more than one writing convention when there's been a book buyer from one of the major chains on one of the panels. The cover's the thing, they emphasise. Especially for online and railway purchases; what sells a book is the call to action (i.e. buy the book) given by a simple and direct cover. Books, often, are impulse purchases.

So that's an element of the thinking here. Prospect is a book, after all, about the Great Fire of London. So there's a need to have a, er, Great Fire of London-related image front and centre. 

Anyway, I hope you like the new cover! Here comes the hard sell: Prospect is out now and available here - at the time of posting, the files are still propagating their way through Amazon's systems, so the new cover might not show for a day or so!       

How I buy books

I'm having a bit of a clearout at home. Stuff has got to go. And "stuff" includes books. And that means making some hard decisions. Now, I've probably got an active hoarder gene. I'm not in TV documentary league; I haven't gone full Trebus or anything like that, but things tend to accumulate around me. Most of this is good; stuff brings with it comforts, after all. But too much is too much, and when the shelves buckle and when the window ledges that you've co-opted into bookcase usage fill up and with that block out the light, then it's time to get some volumes shifted.

So why am I still buying books? If you're bailing out your lifeboat you don't pour water into the vessel, do ya?

Take this weekend for instance. I was away for a couple of days and, as usual, I took a book (just the one) with me for writing/research use as well as my Kindle onto which I'd loaded a couple more novels in the series of New York detective books that I'm reading at present (the Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block, just so you know).

However, I knew that I was going to buy another paperback while I was away. The new David Mark - Taking Pity - which was fresh out in paperback last week. Mind you, I couldn't track a copy down. Three Manchester branches of WH Smith, no joy.  

Not to worry, though. I was going from Manchester to Nottingham. Nottingham wouldn't let me down. And indeed it didn't. First port of call - the city's multi-floored Waterstones - gave up the goods. And that should have been it. You've got your book. Get out of here.

Oh, no. That would be too easy. I'm in the crime section on the ground floor, anyway, so I get to browsing. I walk over to the B section and find a Lawrence Block novel in the lovely Hard Case Crime imprint that specialises in noir-ish fiction with beautifully pulpy covers. That one falls straight into my hand.

But I'm not done. Upstairs I go.  Nottingham Waterstones is one of those stores that seduces you upstairs with the promise of escalators and the smell of coffee, then lets you shuffle, spent, back down via the stairs.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A pocket paperback copy. A book that Block's series anti-hero Scudder turns to from time to time. I haven't got one at home; I'm sure of it. That joins the purchases.  

Get out of here before you do yourself more harm. I make it to and through the tills. Back out into the low autumn sun. It's Saturday, late afternoon. I start heading back. Then I remember. That other bookshop, the independent one round the corner. A shop I've never been in before.

I'm there in five minutes, and back out within fifteen. The shop - Five Leaves Bookshop - is eclectic, left-leaning, artfully shambolic. Apparently it's only been there a couple of years, but feels like its roots go deep. I buy another couple of books - a slim volume of John Ruskin, an interesting-looking kinda psychogeographic book that I know nothing about - but they're almost token purchases; buys made as nods of affiliation. I could have spent a lot more time (and money) in there. Except I'm not supposed to be buying more books, am I? I'm having a clear-out, remember?       

A brief chat with the friendly proprietor; I'm given a heads-up on the local arty cinema and the events listings / arts newspaper. I'm already wondering if they do mail-order.

Eventually, I'm home after the weekend, my bag somewhat heavier than it had been when I set out, and my weeding-out-the-books task made that little bit more complicated. Of course, there's a note waiting for me; one of the red-and-white postcards from Royal Mail telling me that there's a parcel for me for pickup. I know what it is. Inevitably, another book.      

 

         

Hardbacks and paperbacks and ebooks, oh my.

Or, why do we have all of these formats? And is it time for a change?

Back in the day, whenever that was, there were only hardback books. If you wanted a book, it came with a hard cover. On the upside, the book was well-presented,  durable, and looked and felt good. On the potential downside, book were comparatively expensive, not least because they were a status item, but also because they cost money to be produced. 

Then along came the railways. Mid-Victorian publishers sprang up offering cheap paper-covered volumes, often smaller in size, that were lighter, thus more portable, for the new rail-travelling markets, both to commuters and to leisure travellers. Chains like WH Smith grew on the back of such novelties, and for many these inexpensive alternatives were a way into book ownership for the first time.

So part of the history of books is the history of the available technology; innovations in mass printing, the developing rail infrastructure, changing leisure patterns. Add to this the rise of literacy among all classes throughout the 19th century, and there you have it. 

It wasn't until the inter-war years that paperbacks took off as a mass-market alternative though. Imprints such as Penguin bought reprint rights to ranges of books; offering again portability, the eye-catching immediacy of the distinctive Penguin cover and branding, and also price.

Now, until comparatively recently, publishing was not as vertically integrated as an industry as it is today. In other words, there were publishers, and there were paperback publishers. The two co-existed uneasily. There was a delay, often of years, if not decades, between original and paperback reprint publication. For in-demand books, there'd be bidding wars, not for original publication rights, but for reprint rights in paperback. Stephen King, in On Writing, tells of such an auction for the paperback rights of his first-published novel Carrie.       

But that was forty years ago. Through mergers, acquisitions and internal development, there's no longer the organisational divide between hard- and paperback; the same company will tend to publish both. As such, gaps in publication between the two formats have come down to a few months, perhaps a year. 

So here's the question: why? And how do ebooks complicate matters? The hardback remains a premium product, and profits per copy on their sales outweigh those of the paper alternative, so there's both kudos and cash to be had in hardback sales. Plus, some people prefer the format, and they're hard-wearing, so handy for long-suffering librarians to allow out on loan.  

But there's no hard-and-fast rule for ebook follow-on publication. Traditionally (if I can even talk about there being ebook traditions) the ebook price shadows the cheapest available real-world version, being pitched at just a little less. Sometimes, there's a delay until the ebook is available, sometimes not. 

In the world of movies, matters are more standardised. Either a film is released across all formats at once (limited cinema release to gain some reviews, home sell-through, video-on-demand) or the more traditional cinema release, followed twelve weeks later by DVD/Bluray and virtual rental, and then a few weeks later to other on-demand services. 

So are there options here for publishing? Release the book in all formats at once, so that the reader can enjoy the writing in the format (and price band) that suits them best? Many self-publishers and genre publishers do this in some form or other.  

Or is there value, use, and profit (let's not begrudge margins for all) in maintaining a lengthy staggered release system? And where do ebooks fit into this? I'm a little dubious of current mainstream ebook pricing policies, which seem (to an outsider) unduly attached to the price of the alternative, rather than to the value of the electronic file itself. Of course there are the hidden costs of publishing (design, production, marketing, editing, agent commission, writer's advance and royalty, storage and distribution, retailer's percentage and so on)  but some of these are either minimal or co-opted in to the physical book's existing costs where an e-version is concerned. 

I think I'd rather pay the same price for the ebook as the print version rather than something different. The paper/e-ink is, after all, merely a delivery system. A price differential raises questions about what you're buying. 

Then again, though, there are the intangibles. The smell of the paper. The softness of US paperbacks compared to their UK alternatives. Folding the page over (yeah, I'm a folder-over) rather than clicking the top-right-hand corner to have a virtual fold icon pop up. The display function; books as interior design, as conversation piece, as conspicuous consumption, as social identifier and as accessory. 

A Kindle or an iPad draws attention to the technology, not to the book.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but who'd ever sneak a second peek at that person over there who's staring at a screen when there's that automatically-more-interesting other person. The one with the book. 

Maybe some things are worth paying for, after all. 

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My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available in paperback from me (signed if you prefer!) or in both paperback and  ebook via Amazon