Review: Moon Over Soho

Now that A Room Full of Elephants is out, I’m planning to read more. Top of the pile: Moon Over Soho, the second book in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If you remember, I enjoyed the first tremendously.

Although not a sequel, Moon dovetails nicely with the end of the first book. Rivers had consequences, and they’re not funnelled into the Thames to dilute to nothing. Rather, they form an underlying thread at which Aaronovitch occasionally tugs, with the promise of more in subsequent books. I’m glad he didn’t wave the big red magical-realism reset wand: I’m now two books into a series, and I’m certainly here for the duration. (The third book’s already lower down the pile.)

Where Moon isn’t quite as successful, for me, is in the main plot. It feels a little disjointed, less coherent, than Rivers. Some of the plot developments aren’t as surprising as it appears they’re supposed to be. Without spoiling anything, our protagonist displays a certain… lack of due diligence in one particular area. I know from experience that it’s tricky to keep revelations revelatory: as the author, you know whose fingers are in which pies and it’s often hard to judge the correct balance between sprinkling a few crumbs and chucking buckets of pastry at the reader. Here it doesn’t distract greatly from the fun of the book, merely triggering the occasional arctic eye-roll. (I’m sorry.)

One criticism I’ve heard – entirely fairly – about my own Till Undeath Do Us Part regards its detailed geographical references: the “he turned left onto King’s Parade and waved at Charlie the bin-busker” sort of thing. Moon has these too. Not everyone likes them but I think they’re fine here: London’s a minor character, and the details help ground the reader in reality as a counterpoint to the magic. Knowing the locations – through personal experience or by reputation – heightens the fantastical elements.

I do like how Moon ends: both the end of the plot, and the winding up that takes place in the closing pages. Full of bittery sweetness, regrets and promise. The spark of magic glinting at the edges of the grey hardness of police life.

Overall: not quite as enjoyable as Rivers, but a solid, fun read that sets things up nicely for book three.

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.

Free offer: the results

As you might have noticed — especially if you follow me on Twitter or on Google+ — for the last two days Till Undeath Do Us Part has been free to download on Kindle. At the moment that book — but not the other two — is signed up to Amazon’s Kindle Select programme, which lets me reduce the price of a book to zero for up to five days in every ninety, and gives a few other benefits — at the price of exclusivity. Currently Till Undeath is only available as an ebook for Kindle. (The others are still available as ebooks elsewhere.)

It’s an experiment. I generally favour making my books as widely available as possible, but a few fellow writers have experienced a decent and occasionally sustained bounce in overall sales after making one of their books free for a short time. I figured it was worth a try: evidence trumps dogma.

In advance I signed up to a few free services claiming they’d (try to) feature my book during its free period. I’m not sure if any did: I didn’t check.

I was tempted to give BookBub a go. On receipt of sufficient silver they will plug your book to some of their million-plus subscribers. Their Horror list has over 100,000 readers; at the time it would have cost me around $60 to include Till Undeath, with an estimated download count (from their tracking of previous such titles) in four digits. However, while my fingers hovered over the submission form, a line leapt out from their T&Cs: they don’t usually feature novellas. So I bailed out.

That’s the build-up.

On day one, Thursday, I posted to the usual places: here, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, and even LinkedIn. I attempted to entice magazines such as Attitude, Gay Times, SFX and Starburst to retweet the offer (none did). I did receive a few retweets from friends and others, though: thanks to those who helped out. I tweeted in the UK morning, at lunchtime, and evening, trying not to over-spam.

On day two, Friday, I did virtually no promotion. The idea here was to see whether I could determine if tweeting etc had any measurable effect.

Anyway, here’s the chart you’ve skipped past the text to see.

tudup-free-2013-04

Total: 433 downloads, dominated by 269 from the US and 127 from the UK. Then a surprising (to me) 21 from Germany, 9 from Canada, 5 from France and 2 from Italy.

Am I happy with these numbers? Yes and no.

I had no idea how many downloads there’d be. Not even an order of magnitude. 1? 10? 100? 1000? My cynical, self-deprecating self thought I’d be lucky to reach one hundred. My over-optimistic engineering-estimate self saw the numbers BookBub tossed around and wondered if I might hit one thousand.

I can’t say I’m unhappy with 433. That’s potentially 433 new readers, who might like the story and go on to buy my other books. It’s more copies of the book than I’ve sold. The goal was to increase visibility, and I’ve made some headway.

The shape of the chart — especially the Total curve — suggests day two’s lack of promotion didn’t make much if any difference. Downloads increased, slowing as you’d expect. If I’d kept the book free for a third day it might have exceeded 450 downloads but probably not 500.

In summary: a worthwhile experiment.

Now for the next stage: with prices back to normal, will there be a knock-on effect on sales?

Special offer: Till Undeath Do Us Part – FREE!

UPDATE: The offer is now closed. Thanks to all who downloaded. I’ve blogged about the experience.

How would you like a free copy of Till Undeath Do Us Part?

For a very limited time I’m making it available absolutely free for Kindle. To download it, please head over to Amazon where you’ll see a price full of zeroes. I hope you like it. And if you like it, I hope you leave a review!

tudup-free

New review of Till Undeath

Just a quick note: if you don’t follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ you might not have seen the very flattering review of Till Undeath Do Us Part from fellow writer Kyle West. Take a look!

Kyle has only one gripe, and that’s the price of the book — a little steep for a novella. I think he’s right, for US/Canadian prices, so as of now they’re each a dollar cheaper on Amazon. Prices via other vendors will change soon.

2012-2013

Happy New Year! I thought I’d take a few minutes to write a short review of my 2012 and how I see 2013 unfolding.

My plan for 2012 was to write and publish as many stories as I sensibly could – a mix of mostly shorts with some longer form stories of about 40K words, at the hotly disputed novella/novel border. I didn’t set a concrete target for how many, but I imagined a pipeline of sorts: in parallel I’d be writing one book, revising a second, and publishing/pimping a third. I wanted to end the year with a pleasing body of work for sale and an increasing trickle of revenue.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

In 2012 I wrote many words: over 200,000 for sure. The bulk of Till Undeath Do Us Part was written in 2011 but it increased in length in 2012; and I wrote all of The Pink and the Grey and the first draft of my next novel. The balance of the word count went on stories I decided, for one reason or another, to shelve uncompleted. They remain in suspended animation: I hope to resurrect at least one eventually, even if only the core concept and the title remain.

I can’t truly say I met my goal for the year. But to publish a novella and a novel in one calendar year across a whole bunch of formats ain’t so bad, and I’m aiming to rattle through the remaining stages of the next novel as quickly as I can. Two novels and a novella in roughly twelve months sounds very good to me.

As to sales: well, I still suffer from invisibility, and that’s something I need to address in 2013. I’m grateful to So So Gay magazine for reviewing both books — and even nominating Till Undeath Do Us Part for Best Book of 2012 — but so far that remains the only publication to take a punt on either book. These reviews — unbiased by rose-tinted friendship — give me the confidence to keep writing, keep publishing, even when the gremlins of self-doubt mutter dark words in my ear.

That’s not to say I don’t value the support and kind words of my family and friends, especially those who’ve bought one or both books and evangelised on my behalf. It means a great deal to me.

What’s my plan for 2013? I wish I could say same as 2012 and carry on as before, but that’s not possible. I’ll write as many stories as I can, yes: but I can’t live on dust and air and junk mail. So I suspect I’ll be writing less for myself, and more for others. I have plenty of ideas that I’d love to flesh out into stories, if I can. I want to revisit St Paul’s College from The Pink and the Grey, and see if I can resurrect one of the suspended stories. We’ll see.

The first goal, though, is to publish the new book as soon as I can. And since a deadline doesn’t exist unless you tell someone, here it is: it’ll be out by the end of this month.

Till Undeath nominated for Best Book

The seven rowers who’ve abandoned their duvets for eight o’clock in December, half-mummified in college-branded tracksuits against the freezing fog, mill around King’s Front Court stamping and blowing under the sombre, ghostly gaze of Henry VI
“The seven rowers who’ve abandoned their duvets for eight o’clock in December, half-mummified in college-branded tracksuits against the freezing fog, mill around King’s Front Court stamping and blowing under the sombre, ghostly gaze of Henry VI.”

I took the above photo yesterday as Cambridge was enveloped in freezing fog almost as I’d imagined it in an early scene in Till Undeath Do Us Part. Add a few rowers, a marginally denser fog and the weak early morning light, and it would be a perfect fit.

Today I’ve discovered that Till Undeath has been nominated for Best Book at the 2012 So So Gay Awards. This is gobsmackingly exciting and entirely unexpected. Voting is open to the public, with the results announced on Friday 28th December.

Here’s the bit where you imagine me on my knees in front of you, hands as in prayer, puppy dog eyes pleading with you to vote for me. Thanks in advance…