The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

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Recovering

Coinciding with the release of The Pauline Conversion, I’ve given my other three books new covers. In two cases tweaks rather than wholesale changes: in one, something entirely new. I want to delve a little into the process.

ATTENTION: INCOMING SUBHEADINGS.

Background

To state the bleeding obvious, covers are the first part of a book encountered by potential readers. They’re the first muddy hillock you need to urge them over on the obstacle course that ends with page one. If you can’t get them over that first hurdle, it doesn’t matter how perfect the words are. There are plenty of other books out there upon the miles of shelving, real and virtual, to choose from.

(None of this applies to those authors whose names take up half the cover: they could publish a collection of shopping lists called Nnnnggngg and it’d shoot to the top of the bestseller list. I don’t have that luxury, or a collection of shopping lists.)

The only objective metric I have is sales. This measures a lot more than cover quality, but it’s all I have. In an ideal world I’d test two covers (leaving everything else identical) and see which sells more — and then swap the poorer design for a new one, and repeat until Nnnnggngg. Marketing types and those that hang around them call this A/B testing.

It’s tricky to perform an A/B test with print books, but what’s stopping me doing it for ebooks? Amazon, I suppose. They could make it easy: let me have multiple variants of a book in the Kindle store, and use their big black box of twiddly knobs to show different variants to different people. But they don’t let me do that. It’s a shame. It’s a way for authors — and themselves — to make more money. No other ebook vendor has the feature either, as far as I know.

In the absence of A/B testing, all I can do is change the cover of a book every now and then and see if, long term, the graph creeps up. But you never know if that’s due to a better cover, or more books, or a media appearance, or any other variation between the two time periods. When you’re A/B testing you want the only difference to be between A and B: the two covers. You can’t test cover A in country X and cover B in country Y, or any other artificial variation, because you never know if that’s the cause of the difference in sales, not the covers.

I’m left with hunches and feelings and rolls of the dice, and I can’t make spreadsheets out of those, dammit.

For a while I’ve had a strong hunch the old cover for The Pink and the Grey wasn’t doing a great job: I wanted to change that. The hunch wasn’t so strong for Till Undeath Do Us Part or Disunited, but I was willing to explore alternatives.

Accompanying the various hunches were a couple of practical reasons for changing the covers. The aspect ratio (1:1.6) seemed a little off – too tall. More books seem to use the slightly fatter 1:1.5 ratio. More importantly, today there are more devices with high-density “retina” displays, and Amazon’s recommended pixel dimensions for covers had increased. The old images weren’t detailed enough: they’re now 3200×4800, which is a step up from the 256×192 of my ZX Spectrum days.

Changing the “brand”

The previous covers shared certain elements, defining – if you like – the “brand”. Changing all covers at once brought the possibility of updating these shared elements.

All three of the old covers used the same font for both the book title and author name (one of the thousands of variations of Univers), and included a diagonal design element top to bottom. I loved the concept of the diagonal, but it imposes what I shall politely call a “creative burden” on the designer (the “yeah, but how the hell can I shoehorn the diagonal into this one?” problem). Using the same font for all titles linked the covers well: but left no room for genre.

The new covers take a different approach. There’s still a common font (now Avenir Next) but it’s only used for the author name and media quotes (and printed book internals such as chapter titles). The book titles have unique fonts that better fit the story, I hope. There’s no requirement for a diagonal element now (though I’ve kept it for two books, as it works for those independently of branding). Instead there’s a loose theme of rich, solid colours.

Each book now has a tagline too, digging fractionally deeper into plot.

Enough common ground to link the covers when they’re placed together. Enough flexibility to design for the genre and the story.

Disunited

covers-before-after-disunited

This cover has changed least.

The player is shifted left to accommodate the great press quote. The title font is much stronger, with a hint of newspaper headline about it.

The tagline tries to communicate the momentousness of the story: the huge change Danny and the sport go through. I’m also using “Out – and outnumbered” with this book. (Perhaps I should have called the book Outnumbered, but there’s a sitcom in the UK with that title, which put me off it. Anyway, it’s not changing now.)

Till Undeath Do Us Part

covers-before-after-tudup

The new cover reduces the background distraction at top right and presents the faces a little starker. The font is more dramatic and urgent, more typical in books in the horror genre, and the angle emphasises the urgency.

The tagline hints at the two paths of the story. It’s ominous – and also faintly biblical, matching the title. I considered mentioning zombies explicitly, but felt the Undeath of the title served that purpose.

I considered a very different cover, showing King’s College Chapel in a dramatic silhouette. It matches the other three new covers more closely, but tells you nothing about the story. People shown both covers preferred the existing cover: it links the title to two people, the main characters in the story, and hints strongly at plot.

These faces, incidentally, are part of the incredible, beautiful detail in the chapel’s west window. If you get a chance to visit the chapel, do. It’s a tremendous building.

The Pink and the Grey

covers-before-after-tpatg

Now the real change!

I love the old cover. Two quarters of the shield hint at the story, and it’s full of fun if you look at the detail. But nobody sees any of that. People see a cover with a shield on it – and that’s about it. Nobody sees the central circle as a camera lens. The title, of course, gives little away.

The new cover focuses heavily on the surveillance cameras in St Paul’s College (they’re not the whole story, but it’s a mistake to cram too much into a cover). You can now tell at a glance the plot involves cameras, probably a lot of them, with hints of disagreements (cameras looking at cameras). This cover makes the book look humorous, too. It’s a much better fit for the story than the last one.

The taglines for The Pink and the Grey and The Pauline Conversion have the same feel, reinforcing their shared universe (let’s hope I can keep the pattern going for future books). Using four one-word sentences, with the last word slightly off-the-wall, helps convey the humour as well as the plot.

I have a notebook full of sketched ideas for this cover: despite the simplicity of the final idea it took a long time to get here.

Summary

The new covers are now published everywhere (the old covers persist only on sites like Goodreads that track each edition separately). I hope they’ll convince more readers to get as far as page one, where the writing can take over. The truth is I have no idea: I’m far too close to the covers to be objective about them. We’ll see. Come back in a year to see if my new book’s called Nnnnggngg.