A Drift of Quills - April 2017
With April, spring truly approaches in my neck of the woods—and I mean that literally, as I live on an island on the Mississippi. I watch the eagles nesting in a small island just off the one on which I live, see the cranes pose (are they doing yoga?) on the distant banks, and enjoy the seagulls as they dance with joy over the now-open water. So as spring has now sprung, we Quills turn our attention to a new topic, namely, “TV Shows We Enjoy.” Our focus is on the types of shows that grab our attention.
Let's hear what P.S. Broaddus, author of A Hero's Curse, has to say.
I love movies. TV shows. As mentioned, part of that love relates to the communal, shared-story aspect of film. I watch Person of Interest with my wife and Phineas & Ferb and Dinotrux with the boys. I watched Marvel's Netflix collaboration, Daredevil, which was particularly interesting as it featured a blind protagonist with super senses. How intriguingly fortuitous.
But today, since I'm a young adult/middle-grade writer, I'll talk about . . .
Find out more here.
Next up is Robin Lythgoe, author of As the Crow Flies. What do you think, Robin?
I remember going through a period of time several years ago when I was bored with television. Oh, sure, there were some decent dramas to watch, and maybe few good action programs, but my speculative fiction soul positively yearned for fantasy and science fiction, and the pickin’s were extremely slim.
Read more here.
Finally, here are my thoughts.
I’d guess that it was over a period of about fifteen years that I watched little or nothing in the way of television series, whether dramas or comedies. As a political news junkie, other things held my attention. Moreover, I had young people in the house, and there were so many things I didn’t want them to see and to hear before their time. However, more recently, I thought it would be interesting to catch up on some of the shows I’d missed over the past years. I found that most of those of interest to me came from cable stations and/or are Netflix originals. Aside from the obvious series with the “political bent” (such as House of Cards), three main types have attracted my attention and they all relate in some way to my writing: historical fiction, crimes and mystery, and fantasy/superhero. While I find television considerably more graphic overall, I’ve enjoyed some series, nonetheless.
The first category is historical fiction tales (taking this title in a very broad sense). These stories hold my attention not because I believe they are “accurate” necessarily, but because of the older worlds in which they are set. I really don’t care about the era or geography. Examples include: The Borgias (set in the 16th century following the Borgia family), Peaky Blinders (set in the early 20th century in Birmingham, England) and Rebellion (about the 1916 uprising in Ireland). Although these are very different stories, with each, I took note of how people accomplished things without the advantage of modern technology, how they dressed, and so forth. From time to time, these portrayals give me ideas for my own tales.
The second category is crime and mystery. These tales appeal to a deeper interest of mine. Examples include: The Fall (super, SUPER creepy); Luther (sometimes quite scary!); Low Winter Sun, Gomorrah, and Prison Break. I originally went to law school intending to one day, practice as a criminal prosecutor. So these stories feed that interest. They also help me to see how the parts of an investigation make up the whole, how the trail is followed to the ultimate solving of a crime, and so on. Again, these principles can be helpful for my writing.
Third and last, are the superhero stories. After all, what are superheroes if not “magical” creatures? I particularly enjoyed Arrow (because, honestly, what is not to love about Stephen Amell), Daredevil (I mean, a blind superhero? Really? Parker Broaddus? Get that!), and Gotham (from which I especially enjoy the creepy Penguin). Tales like this give me ideas about magic and about how to put limitations on it that are believable and that help to keep a story interesting. After all, if characters with magic powers were invincible, there would be no story to tell. They would always "win." As that would never do, there must be obstacles. These stores give me ideas for things of that nature.
Notwithstanding my having watched some series over the past couple of years, my first love continues to be: books.
What about you? What shows are your favorites? Which ones would you suggest that I watch?
I would like to introduce you all to Jason and Marina, the proprietors of Polgarus Studio, an Australia based enterprise that offers a wide array of services, including editing and formatting services.
I met Jason and Marina due to some unusual circumstances. You see, I’d been working with someone on the formatting of my books for some time, when suddenly, she went AWOL on me. I’m not kidding. I couldn’t get responses to my messages—much less get my work done. For a time (the first couple of months), there were reasons—reasons I wholeheartedly understood and with which I truly sympathized. However, when weeks turned into months, and the rare response turned into “no response,” I knew I had to take action—and I had to do so quickly! A deadline was approaching . . .
You might wonder what held me back from changing vendors when the issues first started to surface. Well, quite simply, I thought it would be difficult to get across the particulars that I was looking for, to find the files for the graphics I had used in my works to date, and so forth. But what I thought would be my biggest problem turned into no problem at all. Specifically, I didn’t have the latest Word docs for my books, as my prior vendor had not returned them to me after the last changes that were made, and she wouldn’t respond to my requests for them. And so, my hunt for help began.
Fortunately Marina responded within hours, to my initial email inquiry to Polgarus Studios. I had two books to re-format (I wanted to change the font size so as to reduce the overall page numbers, and thereby the prices on my books), and I had one new book to format from my final Word draft. Could Polgarus help me? How quickly could they get the project done? And would I be able to make it in time to get the print copies I needed in order to meet a deadline?
As a consequence of my fabulous experience with Polgarus Studio, I thought it might be interesting to interview Jason and Marina—to find out what they could tell my author friends, my readers, and me, about the formatting business. (Readers may quickly note a few small language and or word spelling differences in their answers, such as the occasional “s” in a word in which we Americans might use a “z.” That is because they are located, as I mentioned, in Australia!)
Hello, Jason and Marina. I am delighted that you are joining me today!
Thank you for having us! We weren’t sure if we would answer everything separately, or combine our answers in the one voice, but eventually decided on the latter. So you’ll never know who you’re talking to while we do this. :)
I know that you offer a variety of services at Polgarus Studios, but I’d like to take a minute to chat about the process of formatting print and e-books.
My first question for you is about the process itself. Tell us non-techno geeks what we are talking about when we discuss formatting services, generally.
Formatting (also known as page layout or typesetting) is the process of taking a finished manuscript, and then turning it into a file that’s ready to publish. It might just be a file that you can send to a printer to get a printed book, or it can be creating an ebook file that a reader can read on their Kindle, phone, iPad, etc.
We do formatting for both print and ebook (as we did for your books :)), so we can help an author publish their book on whatever platform they want to target. We don’t use software to automatically create the ebook files we provide – we work directly in HTML by hand, to clean the files up and remove the chance of unusual glitches causing your book to display strangely.
As soon as I hear or see “HTML” my eyes start to glaze over. It is quick proof to me that I want to leave some jobs to those who are experts at them!
What are your respective duties, Jason and Marina? Also, how many others work with you at Polgarus Studio, and for what purposes?
On the formatting side of things, Marina handles the initial contact with authors who come to us, answering any questions they may, giving them a quote, offering advice if they aren’t sure about something, etc. She also handles the schedule for books once the author decides to go ahead. Finally, she does a lot of formatting, although she does that behind the scenes.
Aside from formatting, Marina runs the editing side of Polgarus Studio. She handles new edit requests that come in (organising quotes and sample edits as needed), and coordinates with our freelance editors (we have six we work with) to schedule the books for editing. She also ensures that books stay on schedule, etc. She calls herself the “Grumpy Admin” and her icon on the Editing Schedule is Grumpy Cat.
Jason spends most of his time formatting, but also handles communications with the authors once their projects go ahead (answering new questions that come up, making changes to formatted files, etc). He also handles the technical side of the business – maintaining the website, running the newsletter, Facebook ads, etc.
We also have four cats (Caerus, Discord, SirPouncealot and Tycho) who all supervise us and make sure we keep things on track. They are our board of CFO’s (Chief Fuzzy Officers). They demand we work hard to ensure they are kept in the manner to which they have become accustomed.
It is always interesting to me how many people “work” with their pets nearby. For me, it is Flynn Rider, an English Cream Golden Retriever. Isn’t he a beauty?
Back to business . . . What have you discovered are the most common difficulties that indie-authors experience, and what are your solutions to those problems?
Aside from finding someone reliable to do their editing and formatting you mean? :)
Two common questions we get asked are “what price should my book be?” and “what page (trim) size should my print book be?” Both are difficult since there is no “correct” answer, but we can offer a few ideas.
With pricing, generally the cheaper the book the more sales you may get. But that is offset by the problem that many readers see cheap books as being low quality. Probably your best guide for general pricing is to look at the best selling self-published authors in the same genre you are writing for, and see what their pricing is like.
If you only have one book (or several unrelated books), sticking close to the pricing of similar books is probably the best option. But once you have multiple books in a series (or even several books in the same genre), you can start experimenting with discounting (or even making free) one book to try and get as many readers as possible. Hopefully many of those readers will then buy your other books.
With page size, the important thing to remember is that your minimum price is based on the page count of your book. So you want to keep the page count of the print book low, while still giving the reader a solid-feeling book so they feel they are getting value for money.
Our general suggestion is to use 5x8 for books less than 50k words, 5.5x8.5 for books between 50k and ~80k, and 6x9 for anything higher. But obviously you should go with whatever size you prefer the feel of.
Great advice! Thank you!
How difficult is it to keep up with “industry standards” and how do you go about doing that? And what if an author wants to defy the norm and fly solo, doing something out of the ordinary—something outside the mainstream? Do you try to talk them out of it? Or do you follow their lead?
Thankfully, the industry as a whole moves fairly slowly, so keeping track of what’s changing is fairly easy. And even when something new does emerge, not many ereaders support it for a long time. So it’s very much a case of watching the changes, but waiting until the new features can actually be relied upon.
If an author wants to do something unusual, we will tell them that what they want to do isn’t usual practice, and/or may not be supported on all ereaders (and offer suggestions for alternatives that are more commonly used). But ultimately it’s our job to give the author the book they want – if they want to do something unusual, we will do it.
Yes, and I’ll bet you have some real horror stories of projects that have been brought to you. Can you share any details of how they came about, and of how you resolved the issues?
Probably the most common horror stories all revolve around books that someone else has formatted to some extent, but they either didn’t get everything correct (so the author is hoping we can fix the problem), or their formatter just stopped working on the book altogether.
The problems we get asked to look at range from simple things (the table of contents doesn’t work, bullet lists have two bullets in them, etc), to very strange (text not displaying properly, strange image behavoir, etc).
Usually we’re able to fix the problems on the existing files, but sometimes the easiest (and quickest and cheapest) solution is to just start again, and do it properly :)
One memorable project was a book we did a few years ago for an author who was later picked up by a major publisher. Her print book was very unique, in that it used almost 100 fonts to represent lots of different people writing in a guestbook (it was an amazing way to write a story, and it’s not surprising she was picked up by the publisher). Obviously we couldn’t use all those fonts in an ebook, but after some experimenting and back-and-forth we managed to come up with a great looking ebook with the few options available, that made it obvious when different people were writing.
It turned into a horror story when the publisher presented her with the ebook version – it just had everything in plain text. It looked horrible, and was a confusing mess. She refused to approve it, and demanded that they use the version we had done. Which was great, except her book had been re-edited, and they no longer had a manuscript we could use to reformat the ebook. So we had to manually make ~1800 changes to the ebook. It took a while :)
Ooh, and I thought the number of changes I had to make was a lot! I’m feeling better now. . .
As you are in Australia, I thought you could tell my American readers (in particular) how you get the information you need to start a project so as to be certain it will meet your client’s needs once done?
We don’t have a strict process we go through to determine everything. We have a (mental) list of things we expect to see in manuscripts to be formatted (eg: common front matter and back matter like a dedication, about the author, etc) that we will ask about if they are missing. (For authors who aren’t sure that they’ve put everything in their book that they should, we have a checklist here that you can refer to.
And obviously it is always easiest for us if the author has an idea ahead of time what they are looking for in layout, so they can tells us what they are after (either by explanation, pictures, or by pointing us to books on Amazon where we can check out the “Look Inside”).
The manuscript is also a good starting point for layout expectations – has the author done anything with how they set things up in the manuscript?
But the single easiest method for determining what the author is after is by asking :) If we’re not sure, we’ll just ask. And it’s always easy to tweak things at any time, so even if the first layout isn’t exactly what they want, we can tweak things until they are happy with it.
Its also important to mention that the formatting with us is a collaborative project. We don’t do what some formatters do and run it through an autoconverter and say “That’s what you get!” The first copy we send you is always going to be a proof for you to review. If you like how that looks, then fantastic! But if you find the proof doesn’t look exactly how you want it then it isn’t the end of the world. We will work with you to make it look how you want it to. This is a lot easier when the author is calm, polite, and will tell us clearly what is wrong and what might make it better. It always works best that way.
What can you tell me that I, with my limited understanding of the process in general, wouldn’t even thing to ask you about?
An assumption we’ve seen in a few authors new to self-publishing is that making a change to their book once they’ve published it means that we have to reformat the entire book again from scratch. Thankfully when you’re self-publishing, that’s not the case at all :) We can easily tweak your files to make the required changes, and you can then upload the new files immediately without any fuss.
Another assumption is that ebooks will look exactly like a print book, and/or what they can do in Word. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Ebooks have a lot more limitations than print, and then you have the problem of not all ereaders supporting things that you might want to do. So it is usually a good idea to keep things simplier in the ebook, to make sure your book looks great for all readers.
(Of course, you can go to town in the print version :) ).
Finally, here’s your chance, Jason and Marina, to tell us a bit more about Polgarus Studio in general. Please be sure to let us know about your website, newsletters, mailing lists and so on.
There’s not really much more to tell :) You can find us at:
(You get a free report – “How To Write A Killer Amazon Author Page,” as a thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.)
We’re always happy to answer any questions you may have, and hope to work with you on future books :)
I have a final note for U.S. based authors. Lest you think that working with an entity in Australia could pose issues, let me put your minds at ease. As to the communications: easy peasy! They are all done by email, and in doing so, you can be certain that you are clear in your instructions. For financial issues: no problem! (Thank you, PayPal, for making this so simple.) Finally, I found that the timing issues actually worked in my favor. When Jason and Marina said that something was scheduled for "Monday," that was pretty much "Sunday" for me. That meant that by my early, EARLY Monday morning, I had materials from them. I reviewed right them away, and sent back my comments. By mid-evening of Monday for me, they were getting their Tuesday started. So, if we needed to communicate in "real time" to resolve some issue, we were able to do so. The best part of all was that I always felt like I was getting things a day earlier than promised! :)
With that I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Polgarus Studios—not only for saving me from a stressful situation and delivering to me, three books that look fabulous (!), but also for their generosity in sharing this information with us today. Thank you, Jason and Marina! (You really are my super-heroes!)