The Writer as Typesetter

Typesetter used to be an actual job. While I’m sure professionals typically handle book layout at major publishing houses, writers at mid-size and smaller publishers must now do it themselves. The days of huge mechanical machines are gone. Machines where someone had to lie out each word for printing, a job which must have been horrendous. So much of publishing is now electronic and I’m not referring solely to e-books. Writers handle the writing process, manuscript submission, edits, and layout.

At heart many object to this. I understand this is more cost-effective for the publisher. With new companies, a tiny publisher, and those offering a larger percentage split, it’s even crucial. Still, it leaves a lot to chance and sometimes can be a complicated process. The writer often has to work a day job, raise a family, have a life, AND write, AND promote. To lie out a work for publication can feel like the last insult. One reason this bites is a writer can go to all the hassle of formatting work to submit to a specific publisher, only to have it rejected. They then have to re-format the work to submit elsewhere. That’s why I firmly believe in the old Standard Manuscript Format. I certainly believe no publisher should require a writer to format a work any other way prior to acceptance, and not, necessarily, even then. Since when has a writer had to be a typesetter?

Likewise, most publishers have a house-style using a particular punctuation system and spelling rules. It’s impossible for writers to keep up with these ever-changing and differing systems. For any writer working with more than one publisher, it can be a nightmare, especially if the house-style updates. I’m a UK writer who often writes for a US market, so whether my books appear in English or American, spellings vary. Usually, I have no option but to at least accept a different punctuation system. I’ve had to come clean with these publishers, to tell them I only know one punctuation system: the one I grew up with. The more I tried to learn another, the worse my punctuation became. Some of these things are too much to ask of the average writer on an average day. It’s something any would-be writers out there need to be aware of. Typesetter is also commonly now part of the job.

To the Person who left me a Comment

To the person who left me a comment saying they may look like spam but assuring me otherwise, your site looks like… well, spam. You say you’re not a publisher and yet you’re making money selling free ebooks. This is an oxymoron. If you are selling books, they’re not ‘free’. Second, you say you’re not a writer, so from where are you getting these books? Are you selling other people’s free ebooks? If you’re doing so without their permission, you violate copyright law. If you are buying ebooks and selling them on, you violate copyright law. On both counts, I advise you to read the statement re copyright on this site. If you are doing something else that I don’t understand, my apologies, but no, I will not download your report file from a site that says little. For all I know, it could be a virus. I’d advise everyone else not to do so either. This isn’t personal. I’m just being sensibly cautious. Sorry.

Look, copyright law on ebooks is simple. It prohibits the copy, distribute, resale or loan of an ebook. Saying that, most of us wouldn’t object if we heard readers have made a backup copy purely for personal use. We live in a wonderful age of technology, but technology fails us from time to time. We hear of someone selling our work and we’d like to come down on them like the proverbial tonnage. Writers and publishers are getting better at locating piracy sites and law enforcement are finally taking it seriously.

A common question is “If I can resell or loan a printed book, why can’t I, as a reader, resell or loan ebooks?” To be honest, even the reselling or lending of some printed books is a grey area. However, it tends to be overlooked because of several reasons:

  1. Most people hate the idea of printed books being destroyed. If you’re finished with them and cannot pass them on in some way, they are only good for recycling.
  2. When a printed book is passed on, someone may find an author they like and start buying new books by that author regularly. It’s sort of free advertising and yes, perhaps this would apply to ebooks but a major difference and reason exists why this doesn’t work so read on.
  3. Many second-hand books are sold for charitable purposes.
  4. The reader gives up the physical edition of the book and will no longer own it.

Point 4 is the major one. When you give, sell, or loan a printed book, you give away the item you purchased. Even when lending it, you risk not getting it back. You are not making a ‘physical copy’ of that book to pass it on.

When you pass on an ebook (and some people do this in innocence, not piracy, but they are still in the wrong) the reader tends to keep their version and simply send the file on, making a ‘copy’. This is as illegal in both electronic and printed works.

Imagine taking one of Stephen King’s novels, dissecting it, scanning it in, printing it up either by POD, or via the printer at home, and trying to give it away, sell it, or hand to a friend. Should SK find out, do you think he wouldn’t sue? Do you think he’d be flattered?

The point is no one may make a ‘copy’ of any written work, be it printed or electronic. You may (usually) print off an electronic book to read it in that form should you not wish to read on screen, but that printed form has the same laws. You may not sell it or pass it on. If you wish to pass on an ebook, the best way is to buy an extra copy, and what’s so wrong with that? We all have people to buy presents for.

Oh… and to those who think they can file share their ebook library, has nothing I’ve stated sunk in? An individual’s collection is NOT a library and even if it could be, there is such a thing as the ‘public lending right’. This means an author can, if they wish, claim a small payment every time a library lends one of their books.

  • You are not a publisher, and the author has not signed a contract with you. You do not have the right to sell.
  • You are not an official state library. You do not have the right to loan (and let’s be honest — a loan in electronic format means copy and give away).
  • You are not friends with thousands of strangers online that you simply ‘must’ lend your books to (and we’ve already established that you are not lending but copying) and authors and publishers will not turn their back on you giving their work away.

I’m not speaking to those who are deliberately committing an act of piracy. They know they are breaking the law, damaging authors and the publishing industry, and they don’t care. The most we can do is assure them that while there will always be crooks, there will always be those willing to fight criminal activity. I’m speaking mainly to those that do this in innocence, not understanding they do anything wrong. Readers claim to love writers. They claim to love our work. We do work — hard — at this. Most of us have day jobs, families, lives just like everyone. We have to find time to write on top of all that. We often forsake sleep. Many don’t make as much money as people think and even if we did, haven’t we earned it? Readers say they love our characters, our worlds, our stories. They claim to love our work and even to love us. Why do something harmful to someone or something you love?

Happy Halloween

When discussing all things unnerving, it occurred to me there are many things ‘scary’ about writing. One of those is the fear there will come a day when someone devours all the plot bunnies. Often the writer struggles to kick the furry little blighters back because they’re rampaging and demanding attention as much as any zombie on the march for brains. I’m sure my bunnies have nasty sharp teeth and claws — they sure enjoy nipping at my ankles — but many ask: where do they come from? So let’s concentrate on the scary ‘how’ and ‘howl’ of plots. How does one make the magic happen?

I doubt there’s a writer in existence who won’t one day be asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” There is no spell book. No magic shop one can go to. Authors wish there were, but in some ways we conjure ideas up out of thin air. A writer is someone who can connect two or more seemingly dissociated events, can play the ‘what if’ game, and perhaps add an extra twist.

Here is a brief example. I wove my short story Bitter and Intoxicating for the anthology Red Velvet and Absinthe (editor Mitzi Szereto; foreword by Kelley Armstrong) in answer to a submission call for gothic erotic romance. Although the call provided a list of example work, I had nothing written that fitted, and worse, I had no ideas. I went online and began running searches for red, velvet, and for absinthe.

Although the stories didn’t need to have anything to do with these items, I needed a place from which to start. I certainly didn’t expect to write anything on those topics. I was just searching for a spark.
I came across a painting by Albert Maignan, La Muse Verte, which seemed a good portrayal of what the effects of absinthe supposedly had on the artistic mind. Inspiration! What if a distraught painter came across a seductive woman in a bar, one with flaming red hair clad in a diaphanous green gown, and she was to take him home to try absinthe, promising that it would be the answer to all his woes?

The resulting story is part BDSM, part gothic horror, part sensuous seduction ‘painted’ with words — something fitting to read on a dark October night in front of the fire with the wind blowing outside.

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

LOST the Plot?

I never watched LOST the first time around, so recently went through all six series, and I couldn’t help viewing some of the show through a writer’s perspective.

Warning: Spoilers.

Imperfect? Perhaps. I certainly had issues with the way certain characters died. I couldn’t quite believe Charlie’s death. What? He couldn’t make it out of the room, close the door, and fastened it somehow from outside? If the door had an outside wheel lock, he had the time. Failing that, he looked small enough to swim out of the porthole once the glass exploded and the room filled up with seawater. Escaping was definitely worth a try. Likewise, Jack’s attack of John Locke/not Locke was reckless where he appeared to give the extremely obvious, present and enormous bladed weapon no consideration at all. No human half gutted with that thing would have carried on to save the island. I have an issue with shows where they have characters slice their hands open for a splash and dash of blood, wrap any old rag around the cut (infection anyone?) and carry on with a perfectly useable hand apparently in no pain at all, so knife in the gut and twisted… I never understand why the public is supposed to swallow such rot.

And though we’re shown Caleb’s origins towards the end, that never explains the mystical elements of the island. At one point, we’re shown a hidden crypt with Mayan or Egyptian type symbols, which appeared to the home of the smoke monster — so I was prepared to believe in an ancient god, but then we’re shown the pool of golden light with no clear connection between the light and the symbols. Is this an ancient worshiping ground? Worshipped by who and why? Is this the source of good and evil? If so, why did in manifest in two boys? If the island needs protection, why doesn’t God make it untraceable? One minute it’s difficult to find or get to and yet seems to be more easily reached by sub than aircraft. Alas, LOST leaves us with far more questions than answers.

The major problem for most viewers seems to be the ending, with the question of were they dead all along. I never thought so, and I have no major issue with the show’s end. Not one large enough to have spoiled the experience for me; however, I feel that an alternative timeline where something Desmond did in the pool to alter the outcome yet left them all with the memories of what happened would have felt far more satisfying.

And on that note, the writers negated the specialness of Desmond. Sure he ‘pulled the plug’ and that made not-Locke mortal, so he could die, but he was trapped on the island, anyway. And what was he? The devil? One of the devil’s minions? Pure evil? Or simply a hurt little boy inside? Desmond might have destroyed the island and says he made a mistake. After all he’d been through, that seems poor recompense.

The afterlife idea leaves too many questions. Why would Sayid end up with Shannon and not Nadia? Which woman was the love of his life? Things like this and more pop into my mind, when presented by the ‘we created this space as a way to meet up once we all died’. When did they all make this decision? Does heaven automatically bring you all together with the people you spent the most important time in your life with? What was the overall purpose of the island? For it certainly wasn’t where good and evil battled it out for all eternity to keep the world turning — not if the end is the end and the island was at last safe. What was the light? And when the water returned, why didn’t Jack turn into a smoke monster? Viewers certainly saw someone else get thrown in and changed, so why not Jack? Because he had a virtuous heart? Questions, questions, questions.

This is a great illustration of a problem all writers face. It’s often too easy to come up with a fabulous idea and then write yourself into a corner. At the end of all drafts, the writer must look to see what questions the narrative raises and whether they can answer them all…. Although sometimes the writer may not wish to answer and may leave it to the audience to speculate, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off. I like some open-ended stories, but LOST isn’t one of those, and so I would have preferred a few more answers.

But, having said all that, the storyline spaced out all my niggles, and at least the show had an end, unlike so many. It remained consistent and I love well-plotted, non-chronological story-telling. I imagine some viewers might find that kind of narrative difficult to follow, but I had no trouble following the storyline at all. It’s an action series, a mystery, and, like all the best stories, heavily character driven. I enjoyed the show despite every glitch because I invested in those characters.

In all good character stories, the people populating the work MUST go through a transformation. They must change, to emerge a different and (in most cases but not all) better person. In that I found LOST to be a captivating show, especially when one realises that it’s not a story about people being lost on an island, but a group of lost individuals who discover who they are and what they’re capable of together and when facing adversity. But that is why a different ending would have been far more satisfying. An end where they got to live new lives, yet remember what they went through and thereby complete their transformations in a way more satisfactory than meeting again after death.

When writing, try not to get lost of where you are in your work and when typing THE END weigh up whether you’ve not only answered all the questions you wish to against reader/viewer satisfaction. It’s still fine to go against the grain if you feel that strongly, but make it an active decision, not a mistake.

Alone/Not Alone

Don’t automatically rely on family and friends to support your writing endeavours. They may be wildly interested and want to read everything you produce, but equally writers face indifference to outright ridicule. Bad enough writers must tolerate this type of apathy or attack from strangers (I’m not referring to your average reviewers), but when it comes from people we know, it’s personal and painful.

In my case, many of my family and friends don’t read. Many restrict their daily reading material to newspapers, a few to newspapers and magazines, and fewer to their choice of summer beach reading material, meaning they may read 2-4 books a year. For these and others, I don’t always write in their preferred genre. Them not reading my books isn’t personal. While one might think some would or even should at least give a book written by a friend a try, it’s still an unprejudiced decision on their part if they choose not to. Their preference has no bearing on my writing, or my wish to be a published author. I may sometimes feel disappointment, but it’s a bearable regret.

I’m happy to say I have four people related to me by kinship or friendship who want my work. My husband, my sister-in-law, and two friends. Out of these, one cannot afford my work so I provide it for her. Two only read print, so ebooks present a problem. One buys everything I produce, and my husband gets to read for free because… well, why shouldn’t he? He supports me most of all and reads anything and everything I write and is happy to do so. In that I consider myself lucky because there are many writers whose spouses resent their writing even when they reach publication, showing annoyance, irritation and jealousy because they don’t wish to share your time with something you love as much as you do them. And there are other reasons those closest to you don’t like writers’ writing. There are people who remain shocked to hear I’m still writing, as though it’s a phase I should have long grown out of. Some even treat it as crass a pastime as picking one’s nose. “I suppose you’re still doing that writing thing,” is one thing I’ve heard often.

Of course, most writers don’t earn a lot and still need at least a part-time if not full-time job, though that’s something I’d like to address separately. One can understand some basis for resentment if a loved one is neglecting all those around them, leaving jobs not done, and bills unpaid, but this is rarely the case. Usually resentments stem from a lack of shared interest, and the type of high expectations amateur writers often share when they first approach the writing market — that of success equaling substantial payment, media interest, and red carpet premieres.

But whereas writers love their craft and soon learn they need patience and perseverance ever to have a chance of making the hoped-for success of a best-selling author, while realising and accepting it may never happen and that success in writing comes in many forms and levels, those around seem far less able to cope with this reality. I’ve heard of writers’ families who have only come around once their writing spouses, daughters or sons, manage a major writing deal. Even then, success does not mean they’ll want to read your work. If family and friends are as excited about your book release as you are, congratulations, but don’t expect it. This can come as a tremendous shock to some new authors.

In short, to be a writer there are many reasons the craft can be a solitary pursuit, but if one of this is a lack of interest from those you love, and worse, ridicule, then although you’ll feel profoundly alone, I’m saying many writers suffer the same and in that you’re far from on your own.

So, We’re All in it for the Money?

Note: the figures I’m going to run through here aren’t ‘accurate’. They are an approximation to present an example only.

At most, an e-book probably sells in the current (romance) market for approximately $8 or less. The longer the work, the higher the price, naturally.

35% royalties from an $8 provides $2.80. Note: this is on an $8 book. Some books sell for less.

If the UK author doesn’t currently have an ITIN (US tax code) then the publisher will take a 30% tax (withholding) from that $2.80. That leaves $1.96.

The exchange rate means the UK writer loses approximately half, so $2 becomes £1. If you’ve sorted out your US tax code, then you may get £1.40 but oh… you might get paid by US cheque… Excuse me, ‘check’. That will mean bank charges may sometimes be larger than the cheque is worth and, therefore, not worth cashing. If you’re lucky, the publisher may be good enough to pay you quarterly to help with this, as bank charges are usually ‘per cheque’.

So you sell 1000 books. A 1000 books would be ‘fantastic’. The chances are the writer will sell far less per title. Many print books never sell 500 copies. 200-500 for an e-book is not unrealistic. I’ve known writers who have sold lower than 200 copies with a single title. I have had a couple of titles which did poorly — if no one buys them, no one buys them regardless of whether they are any good, and sometimes the why is impossible to predict. Could be the cover. Might be the title. Perhaps the blurb’s not enticing. Maybe the reader never spots the book because of poor placement.

But let’s return to numbers and run with that nicely rounded and mythical figure of 1000 books. That equates to £1000, maybe £1,400, but it’s taken a year, maybe eighteen months, even longer — perhaps three, four or five years — to sell those 1000 copies and that’s if the writer is with a large publisher and is selling well. If it’s a smaller publisher and a title where you may only sell 200 copies, then a book that took you six months to write, three months to edit, hours to promote, may make the author £200 or £250. And oh, wait. Is the author a UK taxpayer? If the writer earns more from writing or from their day job than their personal tax-free allowance, they must declare all additional income and you’ll lose just over a quarter on what’s left in UK tax. Though note, the UK/US has a tax agreement, so you only need to pay tax in one country.

Now, if you’re a UK writer writing for a UK publisher (or a US one writing in the US), and you earn these figures, hooray, because you won’t lose out on the exchange rate and can skip that part of the loss, but for UK writers, the US is a market to consider because they have a greater population, meaning greater number of readers. And even equating that possible £1000 earned to £2000, it’s still not a fantastic hourly rate compared to working in an office, and sometimes publishing comes with that ‘office’ feeling — there’s associated paperwork and people in charge of your work you need to negotiate with. Which isn’t me voting for office work over a writing life. If you’re a real writer, it’s compulsive. A part of your life you simply cannot pass up.

To rephrase, most writers also work part time if not full time, or cannot work because of other reasons. Someone once remarked to me they assumed writers sometimes chose certain genres for the money, but when one weighs up commitment vs the hourly rate as it works out, trust me, there’s a reason it’s often said that writers write for love over money.

Try TO get it right

There is no such phrase as ‘try and’. No one tries and to do something. It’s try to. Try and is grammatically incorrect.

In a sentence the main verb is Try, but another verb comes after the And, so you have two actions. You’re trying AND doing something else. When you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, so you have two parts of a sentence, one of which isn’t complete. A person can’t try AND do a thing at the same time. You can try to (make the attempt), or you can do (in which case the thing is being done). You cannot be trying and doing simultaneously.

To help break such a sentence down.

I’m going to try and get my aunt to take me with her on holiday.

I’m going to try and run a marathon.

Try and get me some vegetables while you’re down at the shop.

I’m going to try is a statement of itself. To grammarians, it reads as though part of the sentence is missing.

I’m going to try (to), and get my aunt to take me with her on holiday.

I’m going to try (to), and run a marathon.

Try (to), and get me some vegetables while you’re down at the shop.

None of these make sense, so something is missing. The and is a cursor to another action. You’re going to try to (what?), AND you’re doing something.

I’m going to try to (save for a break), and get my aunt to take me with her on holiday.

I’m going to try to (take up exercise), and run a marathon.

Try to (remember your chores) and get me some vegetables while you’re down at the shop.

Some people will argue that try and is simply informal speech, and therefore acceptable sometimes. To a point I agree, but not because of the reasons many of those sites specify.

If seen in a book (I feel) it would be just about okay in dialogue or if a book is written in close first person point of view, where we’re hearing a more casual rhythm of someone’s natural speech in the narrative; however, when you listen to people saying this, a good portion of those (I argue) aren’t even saying try and. It’s more abbreviated even than that. It’s try ’n’.

Simply put, it takes more effort to say try to, and over time and (I’m sure) owing to dialects being shortened to more of a sound than anything else. The ‘to’ is shortened the way people say gonna, instead of going to.

I’m going to try’n go out. I’m going to try’n buy that jacket. These are simply lazy ways of saying try to.

When I see try and in narrative, I’m with the grammarians who argue it’s wrong because it pulls me out of a story. But I might use it in dialogue because speech should sound natural. But editors will spot this, and many will correct the writer or at least question this. Worse case, they’ll feel the author cannot grasp the correct use of grammar.