Monthly Archives: July 2012

Science Fiction covers: A lesson in imagination and simplicity

Two things occured over the past few days which have lead to this post. Firstly, Zohar over at ManoflaBook.com, posted a review of H.G.Wells’ seminal work The First Men In The Moon. Then he went and got my interest piqued with his fun facts and a fascinating look at some of the covers which have been used on the book over the years.

Then, with a house move imminent, I started packing my book library up…a job which I could probably get done in a matter of minutes (what’s so difficult about piling books into boxes?), but has (so far) taken many hours. Mainly because once I get in amongst a pile of books, I can’t help but start opening the damn things.

On the shelves is a collection of mass market paperback science fiction novels which belong to my mum – who is singularly responsible for getting me interested in reading SciFi from an early age. After seeing Zohar’s collection of covers for a singular book, it dawned on me that these books had a fantastic array of weird and wonderful covers, and all of them were surprisingly different. Colourful, dramatic, unusual, menacing, scary, epic. Just some of the superlatives I could use.

The collection is large, but here is a small selection which I have enjoyed being reacquainted with:

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Penguin Books reissue, 1981
Probably the most classically “Space Opera” styled cover of the lot, but with a large nod to a certain popular 19th century tale. Citizen of the Galaxy is the story of a young slave who, when his master dies suddenly, leaves the planet he was enslaved on and sets out on a dangerous journey, where he meets a diverse group of creatures and cultures before learning the truth about his own identity. Sound as oddly familiar as the cover looks?…

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Panther Books, published in 1968,  reprinted in 1974
Forget about Will Smith with his shades, leathers, gun-toting and futuristic bike chases. I, Robot is a collection of short stories one of which, “Robbie”, was written in 1940, proving just how ahead of the curve Asimov was. The cover is a triumph in its simplicity. Unlike the busy and bright cover of Citizen of the Galaxy, we’re given a simple glass/perspex head with demonic glowing eyes. Not your typical image of an unruly robot, but enough to send a shiver down your spine at the thought of an automaton gaining its own consciousness. I can thoroughly recommend these short stories, as long as you leave your preconceptions from the film at the door before entering. 

Nightfall One / Nightfall Two by Isaac Asimov

Panther Science Fiction, published 1971, reprinted 1976

I couldn’t resist another Asimov – there were a lot to choose from! Nightfall One and Nightfall Two are another collection of short stories from the master of SciFi. Nightfall itself is one of the most original stories I’ve ever read and has always stayed with me. It’s one of those reads I return to every so often. The covers of the books, though, are bizarre – a kind of plasticine nightmare which I’ve never been able to fully fathom. 

Chocky by John Wyndham

Penguin Books, 1970
One of my favourite SciFi novels when I was a kid, and the one that got me in to all things Wyndham. Probably because it was about a lonely kid with an “imaginary friend” who turned out to be not so imaginary. A great example of Wyndham’s anti-Space Opera style. Still a great book. This cover proves to me that sometimes the most arresting covers can be the simplest. 

Of Time And Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

Puffin Books, 1974, reprinted 1975

And so we end back where we began – with Space Opera. This cover, illustrated by Peter Jones, is very typical of the genre. Note the similarities with the Heinlein cover – the figure in crisis in the foreground, the fantastical space vehicle behind…but this is darker somehow, more sinister. Another great selection of short stories from another master of the genre, Of Time And Stars includes The Sentinel, the story on which the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was based. Well worth a read. 

This is just a selection of covers from the books in my own collection. There are doubtless many other, better examples out there, but these are the ones that get me wanting to pick up and read.

What do you think? If you’ve got others that stand out for you, please point me in their direction.

Happy reading,
Mike

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Back to the Future

As London gets taken over by Olympic fever over the next two weeks, I’ll be embarking on my own adventure, but in my case, and adventure in print.

I’ve been lucky enough to land myself an internship at Hand & Eye Letterpress in East London, a mere stone’s throw away from the Olympic Park (which will make commuting in and out interesting!)

Considering the fact that I have spent the past 6 months emersed in the world of e-publishing, many will probably wonder just what I’m thinking, going to spend two weeks of my summer working for an old-fashioned press, but I can’t express how excited I am to spend two weeks at this amazing place.

Hand & Eye use only traditional letterpress machinery to create commissioned work and to publish books. I’ll be stepping away from the world of KDP, POD and epubs and into a world of hand setting, Monotype composition casters and formes. It’s exhilarating, and I simply can’t wait to get my hands dirty and learn how it’s all done. It’s a world I know virtually nothing about, but its a world which, since I first heard about it from Hand & Eye’s resident printer and typecaster Nick Gill, I’ve wanted to explore and experience. Nick did warn me, though, that once you start, there’s no turning back. It’s addictive, and by the end of my two weeks, I’ll be wanting a press of my own. I’m sure I will, and that’s not a bad thing. 




Despite the naysayers proclaiming the death of the printed word, by the sounds of things there’s plenty of  work coming Hand & Eye’s way. Phil Abel set the company up in 1985 and it has gone from strength to strength, producing beautiful work for designers, publishers, museums and galleries and many other clients of very high repute. Long may the traditions of printing continue, I say. Personally, I believe that the printed word will never die. It may shrink, change, adapt and develop, and we may not recognise it in years to come, but it will remain. After all, printing has been around for nearly 600 years. It’s very different today to what it was then, but I’ll put my money on the press being around for another 600…at least.  

As I’ll be working at Hand & Eye full time for two weeks, things will slow down on the blog and on Twitter. You could say that it’s my summer break, I suppose!

With Pegasus Falling and The Bridge out there for anyone who wants to read them, and me in desperate need of a break from the publicity treadmill, I’ll hopefully return in August refreshed, with tales to tell from the printing press and ready to plunge back into that digital world again. But I may still have ink under my fingernails when I do!

Enjoy the summer, and happy reading,

Mike

The Undiscovered Documents

A few months ago, just after Pegasus Falling had been released, my nan (William’s wife, Sheila) thrust a small, unassuming plastic envelope in my hands, proclaiming that she’d found it in amongst an old pile of Gramps’ stuff. In it were three very interesting items.

Firstly, there was a short, typed memo from Gramps to ‘Kate’. This is my mum – her real name isn’t Kate, but her initials are K.T, so Kate for short. Dated 2.10.92 (for my American readers, that’s October 2nd, not February 10th!), it introduced a short story hot off his new word processor.

Gramps retired in 1990. He soon became bored with the life of a pensioner and decided to set himself the challenge of writing a book. He called his first work simply ‘Opus 1’. I had read it back in 1992 (at the grand age of 13) but had not laid eyes on it again until now. Set in a part-Courier typewriter / part-computer system typeface, the manuscript ran to just 20 pages, loose leaf and unformatted. It was just as he had written it, un-fettered and undisturbed for many years. 


The third piece in the plastic envelope was a much larger loose leaf document – a synopsis and abstract from The Cypress Branches, the document William had sent to publishers on his brief attempt to publish.  


All three are fascinating items in themselves. I wish I had seen the synopsis and abstract years ago, when I first set out to edit the books. Although written for a different purpose, it provides an insight into how William saw the novel work. Thankfully, it looks like my changes work within the context of his vision, but a lot of difficult decisions would have been made easier with this document to hand. 


The memo is poignant, to say the least. Although it is a simple note, its style is as efficient as William’s prose, declaring that “I’m still feeling my way with this” and that he had to “exploit a direct experience”, asking for, “some objective comments please”. 


Opus 1 itself is a revelation. The memo goes on to say, “of course there is some artistic licence and more than a suspicion of hyperbole, but the tale is in general, true.” As with his subsequent work, William drew on many and varied incidents from his own life and weaved them together into a gripping and heartbreaking work of fiction. It is the story of a romance between a British Parachute Regiment sergeant and a Dutch girl whose house is taken over by the army and turned in to their HQ for the ensuing battle to secure the bridge. William was a paratrooper, and at the age of 18, was involved in the ill-fated operation to capture the bridge at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem in Holland – the fabled Operation Market Garden which ended so badly for the troops involved. William was one of the lucky few who managed to escape back home and tell the tale. Many of his friends were not so fortunate. 

Although Opus 1 was initially written as a standalone work, elements of it ended up becoming part of William’s much larger work, The Cypress Branches, which he started to write almost immediately after completing his first short story. Although it underwent a considerable amount of editing and the story was changed to integrate it into the longer storyline, some readers will recognise it as forming the basis of the first chapter of Pegasus Falling – part 1 of the Cypress Branches trilogy. They’ll also recognise the sergeant, the main character in Opus 1 who plays a smaller role in the story of Pegasus Falling

Opus 1 is a fantastic introduction to William’s work – it reflects his style and the characters are just as well-written as those in The Cypress Branches. So, I have built it into a stand alone ebook and it is now available to download for free from Smashwords, Kobo Books and acuteanglebooks.co.uk. Despite its quality, Opus 1 was never, to my knowledge, meant for publication, so William never gave it a proper title. I have named it “The Bridge” – which seemed simple, fitting and appropriate. 


You can download a copy of The Bridge from any of the following links: 
The Bridge on acuteanglebooks.co.uk (FREE downloads for epub, .mobi and PDF)
The Bridge on Amazon (77p / 99c – but hopefully they will price match soon)

Well covered

It’s an obvious point to make really, but an important one. The front cover of a book can make or break it. In the days of old, the cover could mean the difference between picking a particular book up from the shelf and reading it and it languishing on the shelf, unloved, undiscovered and gathering dust.

In today’s world of online retail, it’s probably even more important that the cover stands out. You have to consider how it looks on screen, as well as on the shelf. Not only that, it must look good as a thumbnail as well as full-size.

It doesn’t matter how amazingly brilliant the content is, if the cover doesn’t “speak” to your audience, they won’t take a closer look. And I get the feeling that’s what’s happening with Pegasus Falling. Judging by the reviews, everyone who’s reading it is loving it, but I’ve felt that something is stopping people who are happening upon it by chance from picking it up, and I think it’s the cover.

Although I like the cover of Pegasus Falling, I’ve never felt 100% happy with it. The image, taken last summer by the talented photographer Dewi Clough with the help of a group of family and friends, is powerful and striking. But somehow, I felt that I haven’t been able to do it justice.

Out with the old – the original cover design

I’m no graphic designer – and I’ve never pretended to be. I’m operating on the tightest of budgets and can’t afford to hire one. So, I’ve put the cover together using Photoshop Elements and Publisher. I haven’t just thrown myself in to the project blind, though. At all stages of the design, I consulted book covers – hundreds of them – to see what worked and what didn’t, and have tried to emulate them. 

Oddly, the photo we settled on wasn’t the one we were going for, and was taken right at the end of the day as we were trying other ideas. We took this snap not really knowing what we were aiming for – we felt that we’d already got our shot in the bag and were just playing around, really. But it ended up our best shot, but that lack of planning is what’s lead to the problems with the cover. (A look at some of the other photos we took that day would make a good post – I’ll put one together soon.)

With the release of Pegasus Falling in the US last month, I decided to try and tweak the cover artwork to see if I couldn’t give it that killer “look”. I tried to highlight the text more, and took off a grain effect which was supposed to age the picture, but when printed just looked like it was pixelated.

The new, improved CreateSpace cover…better, but still not quite there

But the more I looked at the proof, the less I liked it. There was still something not quite right about it, and I’ve spent the last two days tinkering further with the design. 

I’ve been looking over other book covers, both mainstream and indie, and noted down what works and what doesn’t, and fixed upon two problems with our cover.

Firstly, the image is too dark. Colours on covers of literary and historical fiction books, I’ve noted, tend to be bleak and washed out wit the occasional splash of a single colour. I wanted to keep the motif of the red beret against the black and white background, but experimented with washing out the colours in photoshop.

Secondly, the text was all wrong. Everything from the font and the colour to the size and its position was all plain wrong. It felt tacky…not the impression I was going for! A problem with this image is that it takes up the entire cover – there aren’t many spaces to fit in the graphics – no dead space to fill with words. If we were taking the photo again, I’d re-frame it to take this in to account, but that’s not an option, so I’ve had to work with what we’ve got.

But the biggest difference has been changing the font. I used Lucida Bright before, a respectable classic typeface, but still too heavy. Now, I’ve gone for Trajan Pro – the graphic designer’s favourite. And there’s a reason for that. It works. Scale down the title and author name, fit both on one line each, place them both within the darker space under the hands at the bottom, remove the gold colour and hey presto, I think we’re on to a winner.

Finally, I think I’m happy with the cover. It may not be a design classic, and a graphic designer undoubtedly could do better, but I like it. It’s more sophisticated, somehow.

In with the new – the sophisticated look

And this time, I’m putting it to bed. It’s time I moved my attention fully over to It Never Was You. You can be sure I’ll have learned a lot of lessons from what I’ve gone through designing this one, and they’ll all be implemented for Part 2. I just hope I can get it right first time, next time. 

Come Monday, the new files will be uploaded to Nielsen, CreateSpace and the ebook retailers and that will be that for Pegasus Falling – no more changes! The paperback will not be available to buy for a day or two while it goes through the review process, so if you want to get hold of a copy with the original artwork, get in there quick (after all, there aren’t too many out there with that artwork, so although its inferior, you may find yourself with a collectable in years to come!)

So, what do you think of the new design? Is it an improvement? Was I right to make the changes? Let me know by leaving your comments below.

Happy reading,
Mike

Pegasus Falling on ManOfLaBook.com

Today, Zohar from the excellent ManOfLaBook.com featured a guest post written by Mike telling the story of how Pegasus Falling came to be published.

Grandfather’s Book Published – A Tragedy

The story of how Pega­sus Falling came to be pub­lished is pos­si­bly as tragic as the story within its pages.
William Thomas, my grand­fa­ther, was born in 1925. He started work as a mes­sen­ger at theBBC at the age of 14. When war broke out, he went to work with his father at a fac­tory in Har­row. While still a teenager, William joined the army and was soon recruited in to the Para­chute Reg­i­ment. By May 1945, he had been “dropped” in to a num­ber of key bat­tles and become a much dec­o­rated sol­dier. He was still only 19 years old. Fol­low­ing the war, he served in Pales­tine until 1948.
William has six chil­dren. As they were grow­ing up, he was work­ing and study­ing in shifts as a mer­chant sea­man and an engi­neer. He was one of the first stu­dents to enrol at The Open Uni­ver­sity and in his mid fifties, he decided to work there full time as a lab tech­ni­cian, remain­ing there until his retire­ment in 1990.
Hav­ing become quickly bored of the life of a pen­sioner, he looked around for some­thing to keep him occu­pied. A lover of the arts, in par­tic­u­lar music and lit­er­a­ture, he bought him­self an elec­tronic key­board (he is an excel­lent jazz pianist) and a word proces­sor, hav­ing decided to sit down and write a book…

To continue reading the guest post on ManOfLaBook.com, and be in with a chance of winning an eCopy of the book, click here.

To read Zohar’s 5* review of Pegasus Falling, click here.

Coming to America!

Last week, Pegasus Falling “landed” in the United States in paperback.

To mark the occasion, Melissa hosted a guest post I wrote on her There For You blog introducing Sammy, the main character. To get to know Sammy, and also read an exclusive extended extract from the book, head over to Melissa’s blog by clicking here

To celebrate the release of the book across the pond, we’re giving you the chance to win one of five copies of the paperback. If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning, head over to Goodreads.com and enter the giveaway. 

Hurry, the giveaway closes on 20th July.

Good luck, and happy reading!



Pegasus Falling is available now to buy in paperback for $13.99 from amazon.com

1776 and all that

This date always reminds me of a story Gramps told me once of his travels in the US of A.

William spent time as a merchant seaman and an engineer, and both careers saw him travelling around the world and visiting many far flung places. The US became a favourite stop, and one year he found himself there just as the July 4th holiday was approaching.

I can’t remember exactly where he was – but Chicago always springs to mind, because he was riding the subway alone, enjoying a moment to himself. As he tells it, a woman sat down opposite him and, because the car was virtually empty, decided to strike up a conversation.

“So,” the woman asks. “What are your plans for the fourth of July?”

“Oh,” replies William, “I don’t have any plans.”

“Really?” replies the woman, surprised. “Why not?”

“I’m British. We don’t celebrate the fourth of July.”

“What?!” the woman protests, indignantly. “You guys don’t celebrate the fourth of July?! Why not?”

“Well…we lost.”

It seems that in celebrating the birth of her nation, the woman had forgotten exactly how that nation had been born, of the difficult circumstances under which the declaration of independence had been signed, and the bloody battles which had ensued to ensure the United States could shake off the “tyranny” of British rule.

I’m no expert on the American Revolution, but I do know that it was not the best of times for the British. Their attitude was almost entirely that of keeping hold of what they saw as legitimately theirs at any cost. And in their acts, they became pariahs, not only to the Americans, but also to other European nations, who soon took the opportunity to declare war themselves.

The history of the American revolution is fascinating, and a subject I’d love to delve in to more. Perhaps I will one day. After all, it’s an event which affected our history almost as much as it did the American colonists.

I’d like to wish all of my American friends, and our American readers, a very happy fourth of July. I’ll raise a toast to your independence. But I hope that you guys can understand why we Brits don’t take the day quite so much to heart as you do. After all, we were the losing side on that particular occasion, and instead of fireworks and celebrations, a moment of quiet reflection, much like the one Gramps was having that day, is more in order this side of the pond.