Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Breathing new life into old manuscripts

December is the most productive time in our year.  We take ourselves off to our retreat on the glorious island of Mallorca and work our socks off for a few weeks!  Only when we are away from the telephone and the mundanity of everyday jobs can our minds be free to create.  What we produce will be finalised following our return and published in appropriate formats.

This year, we have at least four projects to work on.  One of these may be submitted to publishers or agents for consideration which is something we have not bothered doing for years.  However, the idea is extremely sound and is worth a go...or so we think at the moment.

Of the other three, two involve the resurrection of long-dormant manuscripts.  "The Dog Book" will be the main focus.  It has nearly been published under different titles and guises for about ten years.  Each time, the Itinerant Poet has decided it just wasn't quite right.  We even came close on a publishing deal on one occasion but apparently "episodic fiction wasn't in".

The second project is actually one of my own little indulgences.  I am going to epublish the Itinerant Poet's first children's novel.

In the Shadow of J.K. Rowling

We self-published "Leo's Magic Shoes" way back in 1999, long before the advent of digital printing and seamless use of "save as PDF" in Microsoft Word.  Back then, the files were converted for Pagemaker 5 before the local printer scanned in the images for us, produced the cover design and created the plates for the litho run.  The minimum run was 1,000 copies too!  It was not cheap.

Publishers were not interested in the manuscript.  The industry was in a Harry Potter feeding frenzy and a cute little story with mere magic shoes was not enough to sate its hunger especially as it was submitted by someone without a suitable sponsor to encourage anyone to lift it out of their slush pile.  We sold out of the 1,000 copies that same year and printed more.  We have long since sold out of those.

We re-released the book with some revisions, new illustrations and a new title to try to appeal to American publishers but alas to no avail.  We still managed to sell all of those 1,500 copies too.  The book has always been popular with children even though the adults selecting what they should be offered did not think it would be.

Digitally re-mastered

What has inspired me to bring it back?  The Itinerant Poet recently visited one of the first schools at which he worked in the late 90s, in the local village where we lived at the time.  The school bought five copies of the book.  In 2013, they were all still in regular use albeit looking a little dog-eared.  The children at the school today have no idea that the characters within were based upon my two eldest children who used to attend the school (they are now 23 and 21) and yet the appeal of the book endures.  Three of the books were "retired" as the spines had disintegrated but the other two live on...for the moment.  Their eventual demise is what moved me to consider creating a digital version for the digital age (hmm...that sounds a bit corny).  I don't want to see the book die out.

I may produce colour images for the inside pages.  This will involve doctoring the originals that were created in black ink by the artist Kirsty Munro.  I also have to hope that the original scanned TIFF files have not become corrupted or I will have to dig the hand-drawn copies out of the depths of the loft.

I may offer the finished article as a complete freebie on Kindle...

Chocolate Temptations

The original book contained a second, shorter story entitled "Another Quarter Pound of Chocolate Drops, please!"  The temptation to produce this as an additional publication may just prove too much for me!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Stress, Creativity and Balance

I can hardly believe it has been so many months since my last post.  The reason is quite simple: stress and creativity do not mix!  Our family has been in upheaval during the protracted process of a house move - a relocation to a completely different region of the country.  There is a good reason why reports list house moves alongside death and divorce in the stress top three.

The Itinerant Poet has been unable to write a single line.  The school Summer break meant that there were no school workshops and normally we would have been travelling and writing at the same time.  However, now we are beginning to settle in our new location, the levels of anxiety are diminishing and the resumption of school visits is restoring balance.  He has not found his new "shed" yet but we will wait and see.  Meeting colourful characters living on canal boats on the nearby waterway are proving to him that inspirational fellow eccentrics are always out there...somewhere!

Furthermore, we have booked our annual pilgrimage to the wonderful island of Mallorca for our Winter of creative output (unlike Chopin and George Sand).
 Ideas are beginning to sprout from tiny kernels deep inside the mind and now we have two major projects to complete in the four week period of our stay.

Much like writer's block, I think the best course of action in the face of stress is to let time pass and think upon the fact that life does come back into balance, although it may not be quite the same as it was before.  I try to avoid using cliches but I take a few deep breaths and trot out the occasional one to myself as its mundanity seems to have a calming effect upon me: "It's all part of life's rich pattern."

Fighting on the Home Education Front

Another couple of successes on the IGCSE front mean that our two teenagers are piling up a stack of useful qualifications.  The nearly 16 year old is now looking to her future in the world of further education and employment.  The past year and a bit has allowed her to develop her enduring passion for animals, in particular horses.  You can imagine the conversations we have had regarding aims matching abilities but in the end, the decision is hers - guided by us (hopefully).

She may take an early gap year from 16-17 if the recent changes to UK law allow.  She intends to work and the job will involve elements of training so I am hoping that will suffice - more research needed though.

I am really keen that our children are indeed passionate about what they choose to do so that they can be happy when they are doing it.  I don't mean walking around with a smile on their face every day but that they have a sense of contentment in their chosen path.  It is looking increasingly like 'A' levels are going to be necessary for our daughter to achieve the entrance requirements for the undergraduate course in "Veterinary Physiotherapy".  This also means that she will be going to an educational establishment for the first time in her life.

The balance in her life is changing - I hope we can support her through the inevitable stresses through to a new state of equilibrium and help her to retain her evident creativity.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Epublishing a backlist

The job of epublishing the backlist of poetry books in printed format, has been calling to me for some time from my to-do list.  I had put it on the back burner because of the headache over the inclusion of images.  I really want the children's poetry books to retain their images in digital format as I took a lot of time and trouble to create them.

So... how long did it take me to tweak and epublish a book with no internal images?  Any guesses?  And... how long did it take me to epublish a shorter book with images?  Well, it took me about 25 minutes to do the poetry book with no images and about 25 hours to do the one with the images.  However,  the good news is that I then went on to process three more books with images and I have improved on the 25 hours.  This is also partly due to updates to the Kindle Direct Publishing software since my last attempt way back in October 2012 that have made file conversion work properly.

The main problem is that the Kindle software shrinks the images.  It specifies that the maximum size that can be displayed on a Kindle is 600 x 800 pixels (presumably this is for the basic Kindle like mine).  I duly went through the entire book, deleting all the pictures.  I re-processed the originals using Photoshop Elements 6.0 and re-sized them to 600 x 800 before painstakingly re-inserting them into the Word document.  The result was exactly the same (give or take) as the first attempt at conversion BEFORE mucking about with sizes.  Either way, a picture that should have filled a Kindle screen was shrunk.  As a consequence, I gave up re-sizing for the subsequent books and there is no apparent difference except perhaps in the file size but it's not big enough to create a huge financial hole.

The other problem with the images is that they don't always behave properly.  You think they are in one position on a page but they appear somewhere else instead, like at the top of the next page and obliterating half of the poem on it.  I think I have sussed this now - you need to check that the little anchor marker for the pic is definitely above the page break line.  I found switching to Web Layout View in Word was the best way to check this.

I am still not totally satisfied with the way they appear on the screen but I can't see how to improve them so that is how they will stay.  I only have one further book to convert but I can see it is going to be the most challenging.  They are all listed on a Listmania list on Amazon.

Home Front or Foreign Shores?

We are now at the planning stage of our June tour.  In previous years, we have journeyed around western Europe in the mighty Burstner but this year, we may opt for the UK.  The cost of fuel is one factor but also is the fact that we have never been up to Scotland in the van with the crew.  I have fond memories of a wonderful holiday in the far north-east of Scotland 31 years ago when I saw the Northern Lights in the distant summer sky.
 I have wanted to return ever since.

However, I also REALLY love going to France and Spain.  France is my favourite - such diversity of geography within a single country - and the Dordogne in particular!

We will almost certainly go there in September this year so I am more tempted to to the UK trip.  This would mean that some amazing museums in the north of England could be visited en route - Beamish Museum for a start.  The idea is to find loads of cycle trails too.  I love this sort of research so can't wait to make the final decision and get started.

When we do the long trips, we often see if there is a school or other educational establishment where we may be able to find a day's work and to offer it at a discount.  This way, some of the mileage counts as business mileage and helps to offset a proportion of the costs on the motorhome in our annual accounts.

Last year, we linked up with a bilingual group to the south of Poitiers.  We investigated an international school near Toulouse but the proximity to the end of term is an issue so I have contacted a small village school near Crieff.  They contacted me to see if we could help out with a last-minute booking for World Book Day in March but the Itinerant Poet had been fully-booked for many months.  The head teacher sounded really nice and I promised to call her if we were travelling north of the border in the motorhome.  I was really happy when I called her yesterday and she remembered me making the offer.  Plans are now underway...

Now that the IGCSE English exams have been sat (and hopefully passed) we are looking ahead to next year's selection.  Current favourites are geography and physics.  Wherever we go, the diverse landscapes and map-reading can be incorporated into the geography study and the pressure/weather patterns into both.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Buzz of a brand-new Book

There is no doubt about it; the thrill of opening the first box of a new publication.  You slave over its creation for months or even years.  You pull the files together and allocate the ISBN number.  You send it off to the printer and the proof arrives in a couple of days.  Then comes the frantic correction of the odd typo, page layout, illustration contrast before re-submitting it for production and delivery!

This week, the Itinerant Poet is working down in London and the first box of the new children's poetry collection had to be delivered directly to him at the school for a Book Launch, so I have had to miss out on the pleasure.  He called me to let me know that the entire school - staff and pupils - was in that same state of excitement and anticipation of the book's arrival.  There is a certain magic within that printed page...

So here it is!  The first collection written specifically with younger readers in mind, aged 5-8 years.  All the material has been written, tried and tested with audiences before making the cut for the book.  I had great fun experimenting with full page illustrations for every poem.  I have set them behind the text which meant I had to amend the contrasts and positions of key features of each picture.  I also found I had to put a white glow on the black text to make the words stand out.

I spent so long on the internal pictures that I almost forgot the cover.  We had a pretty good idea what to put on it as the book's title was pretty specific.  The ever-popular Mr Smile features alongside a late addition - a cartoon of the Itinerant Poet flying an aeroplane (this was the suggestion of son Rory who then criticised me for not making it a very realistic biplane!)

It is now listed on the Inspire to Write website Book Shop for sale and I have sent off the files to Nielsen to register the ISBN and images so it should appear on Amazon in the next couple of weeks.

This shortly to be followed by a collection of poems on school.  It is currently in production at Orbital Print Services and will also be delivered directly to the school in Essex where the Itinerant Poet is working next week and doing another book launch.  It is the only opportunity he will have to sell books at the school so time is tight.

I spent more time on the cover for this than on the book above, it ended up being a MASSIVE file as I had started it in 600dpi.  It even blew the memory on my iMac so I had to scale it down.  The proof looks great but we discovered a little oversight.  I started the book way back in January then shelved the project for a few months.  In that time, we had decided to revert to A5 size publications after a brief flirtation with smaller sizes.  Unfortunately I forgot this and the entire internal pages appear in the smaller size but printed on A5 paper.  In actual fact, it doesn't look too bad so, bearing in mind the tight deadlines, we left it as it was.

A5 is just so much easier to both hold and read.  You can use slightly larger font sizes and spacing so it is more child-friendly too.  In the end, the cost was not much more than the smaller books.  I am listing it in our Book Shop whilst I remember to do so.

Examinations Ahoy!

Next week sees our two teenagers sit their IGCSE English Language examinations.  Quite apart from all the book-related work, there is a lot of study support going on in our house.  I think that English is probably the subject that requires the most background reading and coaching of all the IGSCE subjects we take.  It is not just a case of correct spelling and grammar, it is also having the ideas and being able to express them clearly, concisely and eloquently.  As ever, the crucial part is being able to deliver the goods on the day (to use a couple of cliches) in order to sail through the stormy seas of the examination sitting (metaphor with alliteration) and within the allotted time.  I wish them both the very best of luck.

The Call of the Open Road

As the Spring still refuses to arrive properly in the UK, we can hear the distant call of the open road drawing closer to us.  Our original European travel plans were thwarted after my accident last September but now the Itinerant Poet and I are dreaming of the green hills and valleys of the Dordogne,  the pine forests and oceans of Les Landes and the azure of the Mediterranean.  We are trying not to recall the mosquitoes, humidity and difficulty sleeping in the heat.  Soon I will find myself investigating the prices on the cross-channel ferries and the world beyond this sceptered isle.

On the other hand... perhaps a UK tour?  Oh, the (in)decision!  What fun!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Maintaining Perspective and Setting Achievable Goals

Learning means experiencing quite a few "fails".  When you are self-employed and self-publish, the internet is always there to help you but it doesn't necessarily mean you make the right decision every time.  You just have to accept the outcome and try a different tack for the next project.

Our Case Study

Our first CD of children's music was produced in 2001.  The Itinerant Poet and his brother (a professional musician and music producer) turned the most popular poems into songs.  The resulting album was a great success and we sold over 2000 copies in 5 years mostly through direct sales to schools.  In 2010, we started on a new album - "Do the Dinosaurus".  It took two years to make and even has a music video on YouTube to promote it.  Click on the highlighted text above or the picture and see for yourself.

Hundreds of teachers had expressed their wish to buy a copy once it was released.  We were on a high and idly imagining a financial success.  Then reality struck: the teachers didn't buy, the video didn't go viral, the CDs didn't fly out of the door - they trickled. What went wrong?

Our major mistake was not to realise the truly massive change in listening habits in the ten years between the albums.  People had moved away from physical media to digital media far more than we thought.  We made digital versions available on the internet but people also preferred not to buy many albums that way either.  Even direct sales in schools were nowhere near what they had been in the early years of the first album. 

The lesson learned?  Be realistic and try to not to get carried away.  The fact that you are working your socks off to make a quality product doesn't mean it is bound to succeed. 

That's it for albums for us - we will switch to basic videos of the Itinerant Poet performing his most popular works on the YouTube Channel and forget about making a fortune - it's all about entertainment these days!

Knock-on Effect

One unfortunate consequence of the slow sales, is that it has affected the charity project we are supporting with the proceeds.  For many years, we have always wanted to provide clean drinking water for an African community.

We met Rob Scammell in 2011.  He had set up two charity shops in our town to raise money for the Kitale Orphan School in Uganda founded by himself and a friend.  We discovered that our dream could be realised at the school because the labour for the project could be supplied for free by the on-site maintenance team.  Our target was an achievable £600.  We were thrilled.  We reached our goal in March this year.

The Disaster

Everyone was very excited both in the UK and at the school.  Work could start as soon as the survey had taken place.  We then received a huge blow.  The survey revealed that the borehole would have to pass through 60 feet of rock to reach the water source, not through earth.  The estimate has rocketed to £4,500 to pay for the machinery needed to dig.  Though we could put the £600 raised into other projects at the school, we feel that clean, fresh water on site is important in so many ways and do not want to give up without trying for the big one.

So this week sees me trying another project for the first ever time and willing it to succeed - the Big Media Pitch.  The motivation is financial but none of it comes to us - ALL of the proceeds now go to the Kitale Borehole Project.  So, if you are reading this and want to support it - BUY A CD as a present for a child, grandchild, nephew, niece, neighbour... it's great music and you won't regret it.  Play before you buy. 

Message from the Frontline

Finally, here are some pictures and words on the importance of the borehole, directly from the manager at Kitale Orphan School:

“Kitale community school is located in an area endowed with sufficient amount of rainfall. However, availability of water for domestic use is a big problem for the kids and the community.
The girls and boys walk 2kms daily to get untreated water from stagnant well/pool (Ndodoli) this directly impacts on education of student population; hygiene, sanitation and increased water borne illness. Water scarcity continues to be burden regardless of the season dry/wet. Given an opportunity for a borehole kids will be able to stay in class/school instead of spending their time walking long distance to fetch water. This will also enable then gain access to natural underground water supply thus reduce on water born illness. It costs 
18M shillings to construct a 
borehole at school. Thanks”

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Kindle Direct Publishing Payments

This week sees the London Book Fair takes place, once again without our presence, and I find myself reflecting on our experience of publishing books.  Most sales of our children's publications are in paperback and this makes me very happy.  I like to think of children enjoying the tactile experience of a "real" book and its content.  In my opinion, too much of too many children's lives is spent staring at one screen or another.

The Itinerant Poet and I made the decision many years ago not to pursue any more publishing deals.  It was time-consuming, expensive and fraught with disappointment after several near misses.  The frustration was compounded by the knowledge that children and teachers in the schools he visited, really liked the books and wanted to buy them.  We needed stock to sell immediately, we couldn't wait many months just to see if someone would publish it or not - hence our foray into self-publishing in paperback format.  It may have been more polished with the editing skills a publisher could offer, and more widely enjoyed through their distribution, but our readership don't seem to care or even notice. 

However, I could not dismiss the entire digital publishing world out of hand.  I had read of people making a lot of money this way but I commenced my epubs without any pre-conceived ideas of making a fortune.  I just hoped that I could put together a file that could be read.  I have only gone down the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) route so far - dipping my toe in the proverbial water.

It's lucky I didn't have any great expectations of huge profits as, one year on from my first releases, I have yet to receive payment for a single copy.  I have sold two in the USA (total $6.10) and seven in the UK (total £14.50).  In the same time frame we have sold in excess of 500 paperbacks.  KDP pay 60 days after the end of the month in which your balance reaches $10/£10/10€ so I will wait with baited breath until the end of May.  It grieves me that Amazon are holding on the money paid in good faith by customers.  How many other people like us are awaiting their first royalty payment?  I bet it's a lot and I bet Amazon aren't paying tax on it.  Grrrrrr... don't get me started!

Am I disappointed in the digital flop?  Yes and no.  I am not surprised so I am not disappointed.  We don't have a budget to spend on promoting it on the internet.  There is a link on our website but, other than that, we rely on the Itinerant Poet spreading its availability by word of mouth - something he is loath to do as he is anti-electronic devices for entertainment.  However, it would have been nice to sell a few more downloads than we have done to date.

Family and Trees

The creative genes have evidently been passed down to the children.  The teenagers have written some amazing pieces in preparation for their forthcoming IGCSE English language exams.  One piece, on war, reduced me to tears... of emotion!  I hope they can deliver on the day but I hope even more that they continue writing afterwards.  The youngest two have been producing their own creations, illustrated too.  It has been one of those weeks when I love home education!

The school term resumed today and the Itinerant Poet has a hectic three weeks down in London.  Having had a great time with the family for the last two weeks, he was reluctant to leave.  Splitting the wood from the felled trees in the back garden and having the children barrow and stack it was wonderfully bonding, as was playing cricket in the garden with an old tennis ball and a garden spade when our older son came back from uni.

But "reality" beckons and, once again, to bring home the bacon yet preserve our meagre resources (and those of the schools he visits), he is going to camp in the back of the car near Wimbledon Common.  A host of lovely friends will be providing B&B from time to time as well.

Admittedly, we have had to update the car in the past week.  The fifteen year old Green Goddess has been traded in for the nine year old Red...Something.  Yes - operating at the bottom of the market once again... and proud of it!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Increase Productivity - Learn to Touch Type

Pen and paper may be anathema to many of the younger generation of writers however they are still the preference of the Itinerant Poet.  His creative urges demand the spontaneity the pen and notebook affords.  He can write anywhere without being dependent on booting up, battery life, drizzle or finding a place where the light does not reflect on the screen.  His battered and colourful notebooks are cherished and kept forever.  They are marvelled at by the pupils in the schools he visits like exhibits in a museum.  They contain doodles by our children (then toddlers), phone numbers, directions budgets and hastily scribbled ideas for future work.  They are intensely personal and fascinating.

The dog-eared tomes are handed over to me for input into Word.  I could not do this efficiently had I not learned to touch-type.  I would recommend that any author who does not have a willing assistant but who has basic computer skills, invest some time in learning to do so even if they still write manuscripts and poems in longhand.  There are numerous free typing tutors to download and even more you can pay for.  You probably only need to spend a maximum of half an hour each day and within a couple of weeks you will be able to stare at your notebook and type what you see without much more than an occasional glance at the screen.  You may also find you can do a basic edit as you go as well as benefitting from the spellchecker.

I taught myself to type in July 1987 using my grandfather's Smith Corona Portable, a vintage 1950s typewriter, and a copy of "Teach Yourself Type-writing".  The keyboards may have changed but the layout is still the same so the skills learned have stood me in good stead.  In fact my keyboard skills helped me talk to myself into my first "proper" job in August 1987!

With a fair wind behind me, I can manage a respectable 45wpm.  I am a little slower at other times.  Times for instance when the Itinerant Poet has chosen to start a poetry collection at the front of the notebook but a novel from the back cover and upside down and the two cross over midway.  The novel has frequent inserts that are written up and down the spine of the notebook or crammed in the tiny gap between a line and the one above it.

I shun dictation software - even the new internet-based Apple version built into my MacBook Pro!  You cannot speak naturally and you always have to go back and correct the inevitable errors:  "there" comes out as "they're" on a far too regular basis.  All this said, I personally can create directly via a keyboard.  This is largely because I can type faster than I can write and nearly as fast as I speak.  I still pause for thought but I can go back and delete without messy crossing out.  My digital desktop is littered with electronic sticky notes with ideas for my blog.  However, I still come down in favour of pen and paper.

Fountain Pens for better Handwriting

In the course of our home education journey, I have discovered that the children's writing improves in legibility and content when they are armed with a fountain pen.  They take more time crafting each word as they adjust their speed to the ink flow.  This seems to encourage better formation of each letter. They also seem to reflect more before they commit a sentence to the paper and consequently what they write is much tighter.  For the younger ones (9 and 11 years) the slightly thicker barrel of a fountain pen makes it easier to hold in addition to the above advantages.

The Itinerant Poet preferred tool is a fine point quality Pentel - he can squeeze in more words on a page and it dries quickly.  However, when he does not have one available, any tool will do including a blunt two inch pencil stub!

My choice of pen would be the one given to me for my 11th birthday but which was sadly lost about 20 years ago in a house move.  I was very attached to it as it saw me through O levels, A levels, a degree in French and Institute of Taxation exams.  The Parker 51 with solid gold cap.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Managing Sales and Stock Levels on a Budget

World Book Day falls each year in early March. Consequently, the majority of UK schools decide to invite authors, poets, artists etc to come into school and do whatever their "thing" is during this time (often the only time of the year they invite them in).  As most of the Itinerant Poet's self-published books are sold directly via his workshops, March is a key month and managing the stock levels can prove a major headache.  This is where the short digital print run comes into its own.

Some schools book try to book World Book Day workshops at the last minute and have to compromise by taking dates later in March -  WBD/week itself are invariably filled up to a year beforehand.  It is impossible to predict whether these schools will be infants, juniors, middle or high schools with different titles being appropriate in each case.  We have 11 titles currently in print, an incorrect selection available means sales missed.  Quite apart from this is the need to be able to fit the stock in the trusty Green Goddess to travel all over the country for a week at a time.

Thankfully we have a great relationship with our digital printing company, Orbital Digital Print Services, and they can turn around an order extremely quickly.  I placed an order for 25 copies each of three titles on Monday morning and they are scheduled for delivery on Friday of the same week.  We can't risk printing more when too many of the schools are extremely slow payers - beyond our 30 day credit terms with Orbital.  The increased fuel and other costs involved in this month drain the bank account without it being replenished - the curse of being self-employed in this line of business.

Hard Times

The current economic climate is reflected by a slump in book sales.  Parents and schools just do not have the money to spend on "extras".  No matter what the government says about ring-fencing the education budget, on the ground there are teaching staff being laid off or having their hours reduced.  Everything is being squeezed.  The Itinerant Poet has had to freeze daily rates for yet another year.  Rising fuel prices compound this and mean that we are earning less now than a few years ago.  Paper prices have risen and so books are more expensive to produce.  Still, as dear Mr Cameron says, "We're all in this together!"

There are now four poetry books awaiting illustrations and production.  I now at least have the luxury of time to complete them as we will not be shelling out on production until later in the year.  In the meantime, sitting very still seems a good way of not spending money.  We need to do a lot of sitting to guide our two students through their IGCSE English Language exams in late May.

All our children love reading.  We taught them to read well in advance of teaching them to write.  English is one of those subjects where you also need to talk a lot, think a lot and write a lot.  Dipping in and out of the Edexcel IGCSE English Language Anthology is actually rather fun. I enjoy following up background research on the authors, settings and history.  I hope that our children will still find literature enjoyable and that they will not have been put off by analysing and commenting in order to obtain this ticket-to-the-next-stage.  If they are, it makes you wonder....

Friday, 1 March 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Shrinking Image

For the past four weeks, I have been completely immersed in "The Complete Sherlock Holmes"... on my Kindle!  It cost me nothing to buy but my conscience felt clear as I was not denying the author and his direct family income on account of them all being deceased.  I have never read the works before though I avidly watched the old black and white films with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, then Jeremy Brett in the 80s and more recently Benedict Cumberbatch.

I adore the rich language and the insight into late Victorian life quite apart from the scientific approach that Holmes applies to each case.  I love the prominence of trains, cabs and broughams, the mention of Bradshaw's Guide and the London pea-soupers.  Above all I marvel at how modern the stories seem.  It is obvious how their clear structure begged them to be made into films and TV series.  They are timeless and will hopefully live on in digital form long after the last printed copies have disintegrated.

An Image Problem

Fortunately for the producers of the above collection, they only had to include one or two images in their ebook.  These were the occasional sketch of a house or garden showing where the crime was committed.  Unfortunately, they were barely legible.  Images can be a problem!

Producing collections of illustrated poetry in paperback is relatively simple.  In Word, I insert the JPEG files that I have created using ArtRage and Photoshop Elements.  I generally position these behind the text as it allows me to use larger pictures.  I often need to put a light glow on the text to make it stand out against darker shades of grey.  However, in ebook format  I cannot do this.  Images follow the text and frequently appear on a completely separate page.  This is currently beyond my control as it depends on the ereader and its personal preference settings.

I initially followed instructions from a wonderful little paperback bought in Sainsbury's called "How to publish your own eBook.  It has extremely clear instructions on how to publish in all formats but I focussed on Kindle.  I used Sigil and Calibre (free downloads) to produce the MOBI format necessary for Kindle ebooks and started with one of the Itinerant Poet's unpublished works about a dog.  I learned how to format photos of a friend's dog individually and insert them into the text.  It took a long time and the pictures frequently leapt about the text and shrank in size on my test screen.  I nearly went bonkers doing them but stuck at it.  In the end, the Itinerant Poet decided he wanted to re-edit the book so the whole process was merely a steep learning curve without an end product to sell.

Once bitten, twice shy - I decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing and its boast that it automatically converted Word files into MOBI format.  I chose the Itinerant Poet's novels because they were not illustrated.  I downloaded a free Kindle eBook on what to do.  It worked beautifully.  The key points are that you need to insert a proper table of contents and format the chapter titles as "Heading 1" to allow a reader to navigate using their Kindle.  It also purports to allow you to include images.  Perhaps because I use a Mac, perhaps because of the number of images, perhaps... well, it didn't work.  I spent hours trying and re-trying to do this but in the end I gave up and went back to my Sigil and Calibre method.  It still took days to do but at least it worked and an illustrated collection is available in digital format... not that I have sold a single copy of it. 

The Digital Dilemma

Should I really be spending my time producing publications for children when I don't believe it is in their best interests to read them digitally?

The feeling of the paper beneath the fingers, seeing how far through a book you are via a page number not a percentage, gazing upon the cover illustration for hints of the story within - are but a few of the delights not offered by a Kindle.  I also feel that children should experience this sensation rather than just holding another piece of electronic equipment and staring at another screen - it seems to cheapen the author's work and make it just another piece of data to be read once then forgotten.  But would I have ever read Sherlock Holmes if I hadn't discovered it on Kindle?  Therein lies my torment!

Our own children read voraciously and it has been the core of our home education programme.  However, it is the thrill of the hunt in a library or, more commonly, a charity shop that yields the reading matter, not the biased promotions and suggestions presented in Amazon's Kindle Shop.  As we travel widely in the motorhome, we spend hours in towns all over the UK hunting on the 10p library sell-off shelves for those undiscovered gems that an author took a long time to craft. British Heart Foundation, Salvation Army, Break, Cancer Research, Oxfam (bit pricey) offer even more fascinating, yellowing and fragrant tomes.  Taking the time to wonder about a curious splash of paint, a smudged fingerprint, a turned page corner, a long-forgotten bookmark or shopping list add to the reading of the book alone.  And I never cease to be moved when I discover a handwritten dated dedication to a previous owner from a relative, friend or school in the distant past.

Real books have history that digital never will.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Headless Goat and An Unknown Girl

Home education demands time and commitment not only from the students but from their tutors - namely the Itinerant Poet and myself.  There are times when our own work has to be juggled and priority given to these other responsibilities.

Edexcel English IGCSE Specification A requires the in-depth study of an anthology of non-fiction and fiction extracts, articles and poems.  I love being able to plunge into the pieces and indulge my slumbering love of analysing literature and, in particular, the poetry! Moniza Alvi's poem "An Unknown Girl" is wonderfully rich and I enjoy the whacky images of "A Game of Polo with a Headless Goat".  It is amazing how much of my O level English comes back all these years on although, I have to admit, it comes much easier knowing I don't have to sit the exam.  The two students are progressing well and I have great confidence in them to do well this June.

Drawing Doggie Slobber

I have finally made a start on the illustrations for the new poetry collection for younger children (aged 5-7).  The other collections contain a limited number of poems suited to this age group but we have no book purely for them.  The project has now been given priority as World Book Week is fast approaching and this book needs to be ready.

The sojourn in Mallorca on this occasion did not awaken my creative juices - partly due to the distraction of the home-ed push.  The time pressure to produce the book means I find myself wanting to try a different style of illustration with fewer cartoons.  Production turnaround time is usually less than the 7-10 days our printer quotes but this time of year  it is more likely to be nearer the 10 day mark.  That gives me until Wednesday 20th February to finish a book that currently has no title!

My software was looking a bit long in the tooth so I invested in an upgrade to ArtRage 2.5.     I have always liked the feel of ArtRage as it is more like using pen, paint and paper.  I upgraded from my freebie 2.5 to Studio Pro 3.5.5 for only £30.  I will also have a free upgrade to 4.0 in the next few months.  Studio Pro offers more brushes, stencils, media and textures than I could have hoped for.  It also has a wonderful tool called "Sticker Spray".  As a result, my creations are more generic and quicker to produce.  It also doesn't crash on the Mac.

The Itinerant Poet says that our illustrated books sell much quicker but at the same time the readers don't seem that bothered about what they contain (interesting conundrum for another day).  Today I find myself combining a simple cartoon in ink with a "rough fur" and "Paw Prints" sticker spray, Airbrush Spats 3D and "bubbles" to complement the poem "The Doggie and his Slobber".  I think that one of the other titles would lend itself better to the title though.

Batteried and Blue

Our beloved motorhome the "Mighty Buerstner" (obviously jealous of The Green Goddess after her MOT fix-up) has decided that it wants some TLC too.  None of the three leisure batteries will hold their charge so it is evident we need to spend some serious dosh.  Each battery is £110+VAT plus labour to test and fit.  However, it represents such a significant part of our lifestyle that we will just have to scrimp to cover the costs.  This probably means that the Itinerant Poet will be kipping in the tent in the Green Goddess to save on hotel bills.  We just have to hope that the weather warms up a bit!  

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Fifty Shades of Greyscale

Whilst the Itinerant Poet scribes and the children study the work set by us, I should be providing illustrations.  These are done using a Wacom Bamboo tablet directly connected to my MacBook Pro. We have found they make children's poetry much more appealing to the readers even if the pictures are fairly basic.
One major frustration is that, despite the fact that I LOVE colour, I can only use greyscale.  Why?  Because of the huge expense of printing internal illustrations in colour.  I can indulge myself on the cover of the book but inside proves a little challenging.  Another  frustration is having to use free software to keep costs down (Artrage 2.5 and Photoshop Elements 6 came with my £70 Bamboo tablet).

Workarounds used to date:

•               Work in full colour in Artrage or Photoshop then convert it to black and white   in Photoshop
•               Work in greyscale in Photoshop
•               Only select limited blacks and greys in Artrage palette
•               Work in full colour then flip to greyscale in Word

I fell foul of the last of these recently.  We produced a poetry collection for children that was going to have the luxury of 20 full colour images.  Each page that contained an illustration was considered “colour” even if the reverse of the page was normal text.  This led us to put them back-to-back so two illustrations equalled one colour page.

At the last moment, after checking the colour digital proof, we decided the cost of production would be too high (over £2 per copy dearer).  However, the illustrations then printed very strangely - basically coming out black and lighter black with a bit of white despite looking fine on screen in the black and white PDF file.  I had to edit all of them and have another proof before printing.

The problem may have been compounded by errors in the PDF file format.  I have recently switched to using a Mac from a PC.  Although the PDF file format should be a universal, cross-platform standard, it appears this is not always the case.  The PDF supplied to the printer looked fine on my screen and printed out in perfect greyscale on my laser printer.  In submitting it through the internet and reloading on to a PC at the other end, some of the embedded fonts (namely Avenir – came with latest version of Word for Mac) had been replaced by a not-so-near match and the problem with the darkened images appeared.

Lessons for the future:
  • Work only in greyscale in the native software
  • Always have a second proof if you are at all unsure 
  • Choose fonts common to most software packages and check your digital printing company has them too
  • Have a good digital printing company like ours - Orbital Print Services
  • Don't start illustrations unless you are inspired (note to self) 

… well, maybe I will start tomorrow…