Friday, 26 October 2012

The Contract is King

If you live outside the world of publishing, it's easy to ignore the fuss that gets made about contracts. Most unpublished authors have never seen one, and many published authors have an agent to deal with the contractual nitty-gritty. So I came into the industry blissfully unaware of how quickly contracts would become part of my daily life.

Most contracts are not written for normal human beings to read. They're full of arcane phrases that no-one would use in real life and often adopt a bewildering approach to punctuation. They have a language of their own, and perhaps, having been a programmer, I'm better equipped to understand them than some other people. From a lawyer's point of view, the perfect contract is one that covers every possible eventuality and does not leave anything to chance. From my point of view, the perfect contract is one that minimises risk to an acceptable level while maintaining readability. Some contracts are so long and impenetrable that they put all of the power on the side of the organisation providing the service. Think of the iTunes user agreement or the terms and conditions for an online store – how many of us actually take the time to read those before ticking the box?

For a neat April fools gag in 2010, the video games retailer GameStation added the following to their terms and conditions:
By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorised minions.
7,500 people signed up that day without noticing. In this case, the devil really was in the detail!

But back to publishing. In my daily life – especially when discussing rights or licensing, contracts are an invaluable tool. Quite often, the only way to find out exactly what we have agreed and with who is to read the contract. Exploiting foreign and digital rights is big business for publishers, and HotKey Books have helpfully posted a number of recent blog posts on the issue following the Frankfurt Book Fair (here,here and here). When I'm putting an app proposal together, rights are especially important, because I will often be looking to take content from more than one place and mash it all together into something new. I'm also keen to produce something that we can sell across global markets, so that usually results in a lot of time spent staring at the same clause in multiple contracts and tabulating the results in Excel. Hardly rock and roll.

Recently, I was sat in a meeting where we argued for an hour about whether a product was an app or an eBook. This sounds like a narrow distinction, but the author of the original work had two different royalty rates in their contract and the decision would hugely affect how much they were paid. I left the meeting feeling rather sorry for the author, who to my mind had done exactly the same amount of work regardless of how it was packaged. But maybe it was their agent's fault for not pushing for a better deal? On the other hand, there are app projects we haven't pursued because the author had negotiated too high a royalty or would have been able to exert too much control. So it looks like you can't win!

The wider truth is that contracts which seem entirely reasonable when they're signed can quickly go out of date. Contract law struggles to keep up with the fast pace of the digital world, and perhaps we will see more author contracts where royalties are paid on a flat percentage for all rights and all markets. I'm sure that the newer publishers have thought of this stuff from the start, but for the rest of us it will be a gradual struggle to catch up. If there's one lesson to take from all this: the next time you're presented with any kind of contract, make sure you read the small print. Your soul may not always be at stake, but your future income certainly could be.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Any Questions?

I watched the film Prometheus for the first time this week, and it was an experience that left me pondering the use of confusion as a story mechanic. Make no mistake, Prometheus is confusing, and it's the kind of confusing that makes you wonder how much is intentional and how much is just bad filmmaking. Part of this is because the film ties in with the Alien series and there's a natural impulse for the viewer to try to slot the pieces of the franchise jigsaw together as they watch. But for every moment of recognition ("Hey look, it's the ship they found in Alien!") there is another ten minutes of wondering about the bizarre character motivations or trying to reconcile the evolutionary lifecycle of a hostile alien species.

What's strange about Prometheus is that, viewed from the right angle, the confusion actually adds to the experience. The whole film is filled with characters asking questions about the origin of life, creation and evolution, to the extent that the viewer's questions start to form a continuum with that. And mystery is a compelling thing – it's the narrative engine that drives a vast number of stories. What's tricky is finding the right level of mystery to keep your reader or viewer engaged, without driving them away.

One look at the credits for Prometheus should have tipped me off to what was going to follow, as the co-screenwriter is Damon Lindelof, creator of that giant TV puzzle-box Lost. From the very first episode of the series - when the characters crash landed on a mysterious island - it was clear that Lost was going to give rise to many more questions than answers. I don't think any TV show before or since has required so much from the viewer in terms of memory and analytical thought. The show featured flashbacks from different points of view that dovetailed and overlapped – it was almost like being given a weekly assignment as you tried to assemble the fractured chronology of the characters' backstory. As if this wasn't enough, later seasons piled on the pain by adding flashforward sections and then (to cap it all) time travel. But until the whole thing collapsed under the weight of its own complexity, watching Lost was a uniquely exciting experience.

Perhaps part of the problem Lost had was its very popularity. The need to keep such a lucrative show on the air meant that the writers were simply unable to answer some of the big questions that viewers had. It's also instructive that when they did solve many of them in the final series, a lot of the audience were disappointed by the answers they gave. Making the resolution of a mystery as compelling as the mystery itself is a difficult thing to pull off, it's also a major reason why stories can falter badly in their third act.

So is confusion in storytelling a good or bad thing? I think it depends, to a very large extent, on how you position your story and set the expectations of the audience. Prometheus followed (while chronologically preceding) a set of fairly straight-ahead genre sci-fi movies. When watching a film like Aliens you are focused on very immediate action movie questions like: "What's that noise?" or "Are they going to die?" or "Why can't I get a job as a human fork-lift truck?" And although you do have some of the same questions in Prometheus, it's easy for those to get buried amongst the pseudo-philosophical debate. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the inevitable sequel to see if there really are coherent, satisfying answers out there in the depths of space, or if Lindelof and Ridley Scott are making it all up as they go along. For now though, I'm happy to think back to those first few series of Lost, and remember that, sometimes, it's fun to be confused.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Dyslexia Seems to be the Hardest Word

It's Dyslexia Awareness Week, and I wanted to discuss a fascinating event called "Seeing the World Differently: a Celebration of Reading and Dyslexia", which I went to last night. It was hosted by Booktrust and Hot Key Books, and featured author Sally Gardner talking about her own severe dyslexia and how it lead her to cast a dyslexic as the protagonist of her latest novel, Maggot Moon. This choice doesn't come across as preachy or worthy, in fact as Sally tells it, she wasn't even aware that her protagonist was dyslexic until her publisher pointed it out to her. She had simply chosen to tell the story in a certain way, and her character's perspective on the world was intrinsic to this. She reacted quite strongly when it was suggested to her that she write more books featuring dyslexic characters, and it was clear she didn't want to fall into the trap of becoming an issue-based writer. More than that, she clearly has a very organic approach to the creative process, and her characters need room to develop without restrictions and predetermined "labels".

By having a dyslexic voice at the core of her novel, Sally is tapping into a long-standing trend for exploring "otherness" in children's fiction. Consider, for instance, the use of autistic heroes in books like The London Eye Mystery or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Here are characters that allow the reader to experience the world through the eyes of someone utterly unlike themselves. Done well, this technique can transport the reader into a world more unusual and mysterious than any fantasy epic.

Sally has spent a lot of time collaborating with Hot Key to create a really striking electronic version of the novel for the iPad. This allows the text to be read as a linear e-book, and also with a whole host of media to enhance the story. Beautifully presented in a style that riffs on the illustrations from the print edition, the iBook allows the reader to take illustrative comprehension tests and view embedded videos that reproduce the way a dyslexic would see the book. Ever heard a dyslexic say that the text won't stay still on the page? Well here, it really doesn't!

The iBook index
A test of memory
(Click through to see larger versions of the screenshots)

Sally came across as being quite rebellious, and she wears her dyslexia as a badge of honour, even as she railed against the word itself (it's deeply ironic that dyslexia is such a difficult word for dyslexics to spell!). She certainly feels that being able to see the world in a different way is an advantage for her, and she has a visual imagination that I really envy. Although I have no trouble reading or writing, the pictures in my head are more like bad smartphone videos compared to the Full HD 3D extravaganza that she carries around with her. And this feels like the wider point of Dyslexia Awareness Week, to stress that we shouldn't feel sorry for dyslexics or to try to make them more like the rest of us. Who's to say, after all, that we are right and they are wrong? Instead, it should be about celebrating the diversity of viewpoints that conditions like dyslexia gives us, and improving the school environment so that dyslexic children are given the same opportunities as everyone else.


Friday, 5 October 2012

Sweating the Small Stuff

Writing well is all about the mastery of fine detail: the feel of cold asphalt on your cheek, the taste of fresh blood in your mouth, the angry squawk of a distant ambulance threading its way through rush hour traffic. It's only by inching from moment to moment, from word to word, that a book gets written at all. But it's easy to get so immersed in the small stuff that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

This could easily be a lead-in to a discussion of plot structure or theme, but today I wanted to focus on agent submissions, because this is an area where a passion for the finer details can overbalance into neuroticism. I can remember, in the early years, spending hour after hour revising my covering letter each time I was rejected, convinced that this was the reason my genius was so under-appreciated. But I think that every time I changed it, it got a little worse. The original letter had an offbeat and quirky style that suited the book I had written, whereas the later versions became bland and flavourless.

Unwittingly, I think agents feed our obsession for detail when they present very specific submission criteria on their websites. This is intended to make the agent's life easier when assessing submissions and to school the hopeless so they don't try to present their latest novel by writing it in felt-tip on the back of a tortilla wrap. For the semi-professional author however, these criteria turn into a challenge of epic (not to say neurotic) proportions:
  • This agent wants a two-page synopsis – can I just double-space my standard one-pager?
  • Why don't I have that font on my Mac?
  • Will they hate me forever if I send something that's twenty-five words over the limit?
  • Surely they can't really mean "send no attachments?"
  • How thin can I make the margins on this document before it becomes completely unreadable?

This kind of micro-manuscript-management can easily distract a writer from more important considerations like:
  • Is my book ready to submit?
  • Does this agent represent the kind of book I've written?
  • Could I actually work with this person?

Pulling back to take in the bigger picture can really pay dividends in the search for an agent. Much like applying for a job, it's well worth taking the time to target agents strategically, according to who they are and what kind of work they enjoy. Then, you can at least indulge your perfectionist tendencies on a directed basis, rather than getting hopelessly wound up with no hope of success. Beyond a certain level of competence, though, I don't know how much crafting the perfect submission really helps you – an agent will make an instant gut reaction about your work on the first page, because that's their job. If they don't love what you've written, then no amount of proofreading is going to fix that.