The Opposite of Popular

The online home of alleged author Victoria Leybourne

the title "the murano glass slipper" against a blue watercolour background


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First peek – The Murano Glass Slipper

Today I’m excited to share one of my favourite scenes from The Murano Glass Slipper: A Cinderella retelling, the sequel to to The Rose and the Mask and my permanent answer to the question “what are you doing tonight?” Of course, it hasn’t passed the eagle eyes of my lovely editor yet, but I hope you enjoy it 🙂

the title "the murano glass slipper" against a blue watercolour background

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A Self-Publishing To Do List

adventuresinselfpublishing

Here it is: the list of things I’m doing, book-wise! I’m sharing it partly because I know some of you are curious about all the Very Important Tasks I’ve been muttering about, and partly for anyone else considering self-publishing. But please, note that I mean everything I say in this and future posts about it in a “this is what I’m doing, follow along to see if it works!” sort of way, not a “do this, it’s a good idea” sort of way.

Bold headings are things I’m planning to do individual posts about later. I’ll come back and add links!

Oh, and one last thing: this list sort of starts at the “I have a finished, polished manuscript” stage. See the rest of this blog for the roundabout, tear-soaked route I took to get there.

Okay, let’s do this!

Professional Editing

Plenty of self-published authors skip this step, which is either a pragmatic allocation of resources or the beginning of a literary apocalypse, depending on whom you ask. I’ve seen knock-down, drag-out fights about it in indie author communities. (Then again, some of those communities would have a knock-down, drag-out fight over, like, Coke vs Pepsi, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.)

The issue is that editing is expensive, by most people’s standards (as it should be, when you’re paying for hours of someone’s skilled work), and it’s very, very possible for a self-published book to sell only a handful of copies, meaning that you never make the investment back. On the other hand, a professionally-presented book stands a better chance of attracting readers, and getting good reviews that attract other readers. Like a lot of things on this list, it’s a gamble. [Update: here is a post about that.]

Originally, I wasn’t intending to get The Rose and the Mask professionally edited. Given my fiscal situation (which might conservatively be described as “LOLarious”), I just didn’t think it was a sensible use of money. In the end, what changed my mind was looking back at the amount of work I’d put into it. I spent years of my life drafting and re-drafting this book and agonising over the tiniest of details (again, see the rest of this blog). After all that, the idea of readers dismissing it as slapdash because of whatever typos and plot inconsistencies I was inevitably missing was just too horrifying.

As it turned out, hiring an editor was the right choice for me—and an amazing experience. Yes, my editor caught a bunch of mistakes and inconsistencies that I’m glad will never reach paying readers, but I also learned a lot from the experience that I can use to write an even better book next time, right out of the gate.

Choosing Sales Channels

This is where it all starts to become a lot less writery and a lot more businessy. (Those are technical terms, keep up.) You’re choosing where you want your book to be available. The obvious answer is “EVERYWHERE!!!” but there’s a little more nuance to it than that.

With ebooks, the primary sales channels are Amazon (Kindle), Google Play (for Android Devices), Apple iBooks (for iPhones etc) Barnes and Noble (for Nook devices) and Kobo (for Kobo devices). Unless my extensive forum- and blog-lurking has led me astray, most self-published authors make the vast majority of their sales on Amazon.

Amazon have been at the forefront of the self-publishing movement for some time now, basically leaving all the other retailers scrambling to keep up with what they offer. For example, they are (as far as I know) the only retailer that incentivises authors to publish with them exclusively. By enrolling an ebook in their “KDP Select” program, authors agree not to make it available anywhere else (on a 90-day rolling contract) in return for certain privileges. The most notable of these is that the book will be included in Kindle Unlimited, where subscribers can read them for free – but the author gets paid depending on the number of pages read. It’s also rumoured that Select books get preferential treatment in terms of visibility on the site, but (again, as far as I know) that hasn’t been proven.

Essentially, then, your choice is mostly whether to enrol in Select or to use Amazon plus all the other channels (which indie authors tend to refer to as “going wide”).

If you want to make a physical, paper copy of your book available, there are choices to make there, too. Although, in my opinion, the stakes are less “where will I make more money?” and more “where will I find less stress?” Most self-publishers sell only a very tiny number of paperbacks, even the ones that are doing well in ebook. That’s basically a price thing: self-published books are usually sold on a “print on demand” basis. That means that—instead of a large number of copies being ordered at a bulk discount and stored somewhere until they’re sold—individual copies of your book will be printed to fulfil individual orders. But printing books one at a time is expensive, and that’s reflected in the retail cost of a self-published paperback, which, in turn, is reflected in the sales figures.

Offering a paperback for sale, therefore, is mostly a vanity exercise. It has a couple of practical upsides—for instance, Amazon will show the Kindle price as a “saving” on the paperback price—but those are only maybe worth the investment of time (and money, if you use any professional design or formatting services). But a lot of writers (including me!) want to see and touch a physical copy of their book, so that it feels real. And, if that’s why you’re doing it, you can probably take your businessy hat off for this one.

There are really only two main players for print-on-demand: Amazon (again) with their CreateSpace, and IngramSpark. Honestly, I can’t see much of a difference between them, so you’re in the wrong place for a detailed comparison. Since I plan to enrol The Rose and the Mask in KDP Select, I’m also going to use CreateSpace, thus centring everything on Amazon for the time being.

Formatting

While I actually think Amazon (primarily) have made self-publishing remarkably straightforward, there is, regrettably, slightly more to it than just uploading your manuscript straight to your Kindle Direct Publishing account. Your book needs special formatting—and it’s different for ebook and paperback versions.

Ebooks—and I’m thinking mostly of Kindle books, because I’m most familiar with them, but I think it’s the same for the other formats—actually don’t want much formatting at all. You can’t choose the fonts, you can’t number the pages (because ebooks don’t have pages) and so on. What you actually want is a complete absence of formatting—save for bold, italics and underlines, if you use them. And that’s actually a lot harder than you’d think, especially if you use Microsoft Word. Word is so clever that it often cycles right around to stupid, and what looks to you like plain, unformatted text is actually all kinds of complicated under the hood, and somehow contrives to look spectacularly crap on a Kindle.

Paperback formatting, however, is at the other end of the spectrum. The print-on-demand printer will print your book exactly as you provide it to them, which means you have to perfect every detail yourself. That means styling the fonts, making sure the words don’t break up across lines in a way you don’t like, that there are no pages with just one word on them, that the page numbers start and finish where they’re supposed to, that the table of contents has all the right page numbers on it, that the margins are the right size and none of the text disappears into the binding… Excuse me while I breathe into this paper bag.

Formatting is another thing that you can (and many authors do) pay a professional to do for you. Having read the above, you might think it’s worth it. Personally, I feel like I should be able to do it myself, so I’m going to—no matter how many inventive new expletives I come up with in the process.

Cover design

My guess would be that this is the thing self-published authors are most likely to pay a professional to do. I mean, there’s no connection between being able to write a book and being any good at art or graphic design. And, while a lack of editing might get you bad reviews, or lose you sales at the “download a sample” stage, a bad cover will stop readers from even clicking through to learn more about your book.

Again, though, this is something I feel I should be able to do, so—out of a combination of stubbornness and lack of funds—I did it myself. Those of you who’ve been here a while will have seen me make several different ones, each time thinking I’ve finished the job, only to redo it a few months later. Here’s the latest one, hot off the… well, fresh out of Photoshop.

the cover for

Honestly, I like it and feel good about using it, but I’m sure a professional could have come up with something much better, both visually and in terms of appeal to my target readers. This is definitely a case of “do as I say, not as I do”… if you’ve got the cash.

Marketing copy

Most obviously, you need a blurb—but this also includes any other writing you might use to sell your book. So, an author bio, your Amazon description, any additional writing for your website, stuff like that.

I’ve said that a lot of things are “the worst”, but writing a blurb is the woooooorrrrrrsssssst. I honestly thought that knocking out a few paragraphs about a book I know inside out would be easy, but it was horrible. You have so little time to catch someone’s attention, so you have to keep it brief, which is where knowing what you’re writing about very intimately is actually extremely unhelpful. And striking a balance between teasing people with your best plot points and giving away the entire story is very tricky, too.

You can see what I came up with over on the book’s website, if you can’t read it on the back cover above. My best tip would be to make a list of the key things you think are appealing about your book (in my case, that it’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling, that the heroine is a thief, that her brother is Giacomo Casanova, that the setting is 18th century Venice and that the hero and heroine are trapped together by a curse) and then concentrate your efforts very firmly on conveying that as succinctly and intriguingly as you can. But honestly, I did that and it was still a giant headache, so what do I know?

Marketing

Nobody knows the secret to selling a large number of self-published books. People are doing it, but no one really knows how—or, if they do, they’re wisely keeping quiet about it because, once everyone knows and is doing it, it won’t work anymore.

However, there are plenty of things that might work. Here are some of the ideas I want to try:

A blog tour. Well, sort of. A blog tour is where, over a set period of time, your book is featured on a bunch of different blogs. Those blog posts could be a “cover reveal”, an excerpt from the book, an author interview or a review of your book by the blog owner. You can pay companies to organise one of these for you, and they’ll guarantee a certain number of posts from their “network”. I’m trying to organise my own by choosing and emailing bloggers directly. [Update: this did not go that well.)

A Goodreads giveaway. Goodreads offer two kinds of giveaway: ebook (which you have to pay a not-inconsiderable fee to do) and paperback (which are free apart from the cost of sending out the books). I’m not hugely interested in paying to give my work away for free but the paperback ones seem to attract a decent amount of attention so I’m excited to give one of those a try. [Update: I did!)

Paid advertising. Again, my budget can sort of be described with a sad trombone noise, so I’ll have to be very careful about this. But I like the idea of advertising on one or two popular romance blogs. Amazon have also just introduced pay-per-click ads, which I guess is kind of like the big publishers paying chain stores to include their books in promotions.

So, there you have it: an overview of what I’ve been up to for the last few weeks and will continue to be up to, into and generally all over until the release. Like I said above, I’m planning to expand on all of this in more posts, as well as update you on how all of this works out. It’s a learning experience, let’s put it that way!


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2016 Week Twenty-Eight: The Naughty Princess

It’s been very hot this week and when it’s hot my brain tends to overheat and turn to sludge so I thought we’d have a look at something from my bookshelf.

a book with a plain green cover: the naughty princess by anthony armstrong

I found The Naughty Princess by Anthony Armstrong at a book fair when I was a teenager and paid 75p for it, which was a bit of a steal because it’s one of the best books ever. First published in 1945, it’s a collection of almost Wodehousian humorous re-interpretations of fairytales, so it falls pretty squarely at the cross-section of two of my interests.

The illustrations are by A K Macdonald and they’re quite lovely:

an illustration of a woman in a long white dress sitting beneath an archway overlooking a garden. Caption: “She was not really bad-looking, her father decided – an understatement which, if openly expressed, would have resulted in challenges from at least half a dozen young knights.”

a fairy appears to some men wearing feathered hats and tights. Caption: “'Well boys, what can I do for you? Ask for anything! Old fairy custom and all that...!'”

But the real star here is the writing. The stories are funny both in terms of the beautifully cynical way Armstrong has looked at fairytales and in the style of his prose. In the first story, ‘The Pack of Pieces’, King Plimsoll of Waterline decides he has to marry off his daughter because she and her ladies-in-waiting keep hogging the bathroom in the mornings. He goes to discuss this with his Acting Vizier (the actual Vizier has been turned into a monkey puzzle tree and “even the Queen was forced to agree that in Affairs of State something more was required of a Vizier than a reputed ability to puzzle over-enterprising monkeys) and discovers him dictating to his “extremely pretty young stenographer”:

[He] was giving his mind to it so thoroughly that he had her sitting on his knee so as to miss nothing that fell from his lips.

He rose instantly in the presence of Royalty and the damsel a few seconds later gave a low curtsey – finding herself, indeed, in the best position for it in that she had been abruptly spilled on the floor.

“Really, Malan!” began the King mildly, for he was pretty easy-going as far as his very valuable Acting Vizier was concerned. “Must you start that sort of thing so early?”

“It is never too early for a loyal Vizier to start work,” countered Malan, swiftly, “and as Your Majesty observed, I was dictating a confidential letter which I did not want overheard.”

“Oh, I see… Well, let that business drop for a moment. I want to ask you something privately.”

The dropped business got up from the floor and retired with another but better-planned curtsey to her own office.

 

I laugh at “dropped business” every time.

Of course, I have to give a mention to Armstrong’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast which appears here as ‘Presents for Princesses’. A king heads off on a journey and promises to get each of his three daughters a present. One asks for a husband, one for some underwear and the youngest (and most calculating) only for a rose and her father’s safe return , though she rather suspects he’ll pick her up some jewellery too. The king manages to get hold of a prince who’s been turned into a frog (he travels in a “Royal-Box-With-Holes-In-The-Lid”) and the underwear (though there’s some confusion over that and it transpires he’d asked for “braziers”) but the rose proves a bit tricky – until they happen to stumble on a beautiful garden full of them, of course.

a rose and a necklace. Caption: "the second gift: a rose"

The garden’s owner, naturally, turns out to be a strange and ugly creature, but unlike the Beasts of old he’s prepared to hand over the rose in return for being allowed to come with the king and watch him present it. On arrival, he proposes and, to everyone’s surprise is accepted:

For the previous evening [the princess] had found in an old history book the story of an ancestor of hers, a certain Great-great-aunt Beauty and her husband King Beast, and she guessed what no one else had, that Chunk was only a Prince in disguise who would resume his original handsome shape as soon as a Princess married him.

The frog turns into a prince, the sister who wanted the underwear is so keen to show it off that she attracts a prince (or several) of her own, and there’s a triple wedding.

Indeed, the only snag at the wedding was that nothing happened to Chunk. Fania had been too clever for once, for Chunk wasn’t suffering from a spell. He’d been like that from birth and nothing, it seemed, could be done. People continued to avoid him, and for once he couldn’t complain that even his best friends wouldn’t tell him why. A man’s best friend if his wife, and he was always hearing about it.

This book should be better-known! Although it’s not particularly rare, I don’t think, and there seem to be copies of it on Amazon UK and AbeBooks if anyone’s interested. I’m very glad that I stumbled across it and haven’t managed to lose it in any subsequent moves.

Well, that’s all from me for this week. I think I’ll go and melt quietly in a corner somewhere.

The cover for Faustina: a woman wearing a gold Venetian mask and a coy smile.


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An Excerpt From Faustina

Some of you were really lovely and said you’d like to see an excerpt from Faustina, my retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in Venice. Actually, anyone who reads this blog is lovely, and clearly has wonderful taste, but being interested in Faustina makes you a kind of delicious ice cream sundae of loveliness. I might be hungry.

The cover for Faustina: a woman wearing a gold Venetian mask and a coy smile.

This is part of a scene I was writing the other day. I wouldn’t necessarily pick it as the one scene that will DEFINITELY SELL THE BOOK but I’m quite pleased with it and also there isn’t a book to sell yet. It’s from early on in the story, before the romance gets going. It might not make any sense out of context. I’m over-introducing it now. Here, have some novel:

—-

Faustina had seen this hour of the morning before, though usually from the other end of a night’s sleep. She couldn’t say she liked it. In fact, there was very little about her current situation she liked. She was loitering close to the church of San Croce, on a corner where one of the smaller waterways joined the Grand Canal. Recent experience had induced her to wrap up warmly enough to resist the early morning chill but the thin, pale light of early dawn was slim compensation for being awake and outdoors so early.

Giacomo arrived late, positively invigorated. “Buon giorno, little sister!” was his jovial greeting as he strode towards her along Fondamenta de la Croce.

Faustina scowled at him. She considered telling him exactly where he could stick his buon giorno, but decided she didn’t have the energy. “Where’s Alonso?” she asked.

He feigned offence. “What? Isn’t my company enough to delight you?”

“The only company I want at the moment is the company of my warm, comfortable bed, which I was forced to abandon in order to meet you and your delinquent friend at this unholy hour.”

Giacomo grinned. “Delinquent, eh? That’s a strong word. A small-minded, petty sort of person might mention his sister’s recent sojourn in prison.”

She groaned. “You heard about that?”

“Of course I did. Your methods aren’t exactly subtle. Our grandmother didn’t raise us to wallop hardworking guards over the head with blunt instruments, you know.”

Faustina narrowed her eyes and fixed her brother with a hard stare – something else she had learned from the lady in question. “There are quite a lot of things our grandmother didn’t raise us to do, if you want to look at it like that. From what I hear, the things she didn’t raise you to do would fill a large and wholly unprintable book.”

“A book I look forward enormously to writing in my dotage.” The smile widened by a couple of molars. “Anyway, to return to the matter at hand, I can assure you that your untimely severance from your bed will soon be richly rewarded.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “It had better be. What do you need me for, anyway?”

The smile remained in place, but he seemed to be searching for the right words. Not a good sign. “I suppose I felt that there were certain attributes that you could bring to our little party that neither Alonso or myself possess.”

“Hmm.” She didn’t like the sound of that.

“Besides, I thought you might like to help your brother in his hour of need. You can think of it as seeing me off, if you like.”

She looked away, out towards the point where the Grand Canal flowed into the Laguna Veneta. “Yes, well, the way things are looking, I might not be far behind you.”

“You’re thinking of leaving Venice?”

“Those guards saw my face as well as the business end of a brick. I have to assume they know who I am and that someone will be coming after me.”

Giacomo nodded, looking thoughtful. Something over Faustina’s shoulder caught his eye and he broke out into a smile once again. “Ah, here he is. We were beginning to think you’d been carried off by a seagull, my friend!”

Faustina turned towards the water. Alonso waved cheerily at her from the bow of a sanpierota, a large fishing boat – not quite the gondola she had been expecting. She glanced back at Giacomo.

“Where on earth did you get hold of that?”

Giacomo shrugged. “We’ve got connections,” he said, which was about the same as not answering at all.

Faustina rolled her eyes. “Buon giorno, Alonso.”

“And to you, Signorina Casanova. Always a pleasure.” He tipped his hat. Then, to Giacomo, “Are you going to get on board this thing or not? It’s a two-man craft, you know, and there’s the sail to get up yet.”

Faustina raised her eyebrows. “Sail? How far are we going?”

Giacomo rolled up his sleeves. She noticed then – her powers of observation not what they might have been after a long, nourishing sleep – that he had a large bag with him. He slung it into the boat before climbing aboard. “Only as far as we need to,” he responded. “Our good friend Signor Bellandi has an island to himself out in the lagoon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy going up against ships in a gondola.”

Faustina nodded slightly, conceding the point. Even at this time of day, the Laguna Veneta would be a bustling maritime thoroughfare, thick with ships carrying vital supplies to the island city, or exporting Murano glass and other products of Venice to far-flung lands. Privately, she wasn’t convinced that they were any better off in the sanpierota, but pointing this out would only delay the inevitable.

Between them, Giacomo and Alonso made short work of hoisting the sail. It didn’t particularly surprise Faustina to find her brother partially knowledgeable about sailing. Giacomo might only have been an expert in one or two fairly specific areas but he was interested in everything. It was remarkable what he picked up in conversation with his numerous friends and associates.

Giacomo peered round the mast at her. “All aboard!”

She stepped off the street and into the craft with an air of resignation. It was of no particular comfort to her to know that Giacomo had almost certainly planned for every eventuality. Indeed, that was the major source of her anxiety. Still, there was no backing out now.

“Where do you want me?” she asked.

Alonso indicated the stern. “We thought you might man the rudder.”

Faustina shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. But one of you is going to have to tell me where we’re going.”

—-

I hope you liked it. If you didn’t, I’m sorry. I’ll be in here.

me in a dinosaur mask. or maybe it's a dragon.


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I’m writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in Venice.

Screw it. Today I’m going to tell you about Faustina.

Faustina is the novel I’m working on. I’ve been saying all along that I probably won’t call it Faustina when I publish it, but I’ve been calling it that for a long time now and I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to get another title to stick. Especially now that I’ve designed and become attached to this cover.

The cover for Faustina: a woman wearing a gold Venetian mask and a coy smile.

Faustina is a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in 18th Century Venice, against the backdrop of Carnevale, because masks and historical costumes are pretty and also I went to Venice last year and saw a lot of masks and then became a dinosaur.

me in a dinosaur mask. or maybe it's a dragon.

NB: there are no dinosaurs in this story. Please believe me when I say that I would have shoehorned one in if I possibly could. Actually, looking that this picture again, I think that might be a dragon and now I’m questioning everything.

I’ve been writing retellings of Beauty and the Beast for over ten years now. (Beauty and the Beast was an obsession for me throughout my teen years. I could probably dissect that in another post.) I keep meaning to stop, but I think I’ve become that guy in Amelie who paints a new copy of the same painting every year because he can’t get it quite right.

I really want this to be the time I get it right, which is probably the problem.

The heroine is Faustina Casanova, younger sister of Giacomo Casanova, who is famous for having sex with everyone. I read Giacomo’s Wikipedia page and was really fascinated by some of the crap that he got away with, like hiding spikes in Bibles to escape from prison and pretending to be magic. (It’s okay, wiki-haters, I also bought his big-ass book.) I really wanted to write a heroine who was essentially a con-artist, falling into one scrape after another in the pursuit of an easy life and always coming out on top, but only just.

That reminded me of maybe the second or third retelling I started writing back in my teens, where the Beauty character was a thief whose father sent her into the mysterious, magical castle to steal something. I’ve always liked that as a twist, although I never finished that story, because it gives the Beast something to push back against. What I mean is, in Beauty and the Beast, Beauty dislikes the Beast because he’s scary-looking and keeping her prisoner, but the Beast just adores Beauty from the beginning. I used to eat that Beast-angst up with a spoon back when I thought the height of romance was having someone who was so desperate for you to love them that they would just stop eating and wait for death if you left them (this actually happens in the fairytale) but now that one-sidedness feels both deeply problematic and also kind of dull. But giving the Beast just as much reason to be mad at Beauty as she has to be mad at him, THEN trapping them in a castle together… that appeals to me.

Anyway, that’s how Faustina, the Beauty, came to be. Giacomo Casanova loses a lot of money in a game of cards to a reclusive, mask-wearing figure, and sends his criminally-minded sister to get it back. Throw in a curse that may or may not exist, some arguments and some kissing, and you’ve got what I’ve been tearing my hair out over for the last year.

I think, if I weren’t writing this, I would want to read it. Hopefully some other people will, too.

I actually started this post because I wanted to post an excerpt from the book but this has been way too much of a build-up for that so I’m just going to close with this picture of a cat I watched from the window of my Venice hotel room. (Update: there’s an excerpt here!)

a cat in venice

On the internet, a cat is worth a thousand words.

PS: If Faustina sounds like something you would enjoy reading, here are some things you could do:

  1. Comment and tell me. You might stop a tiny piece of my soul from dying!

  2. Subscribe to and/or revisit my blog to see future excerpts! (Warning: you will also see posts about things like buying an absurd number of candles or revisiting my childhood diaries.) The subscribe box is in the sidebar to your right.

  3. Join my mailing list. I don’t spam (in fact, so far I have sent precisely 0 emails, so I can say that with utmost confidence) but I will let you know when I’m close to publishing the book.