Jekyll & Hyde, beating the shit out of each other

So it’s almost time to choose my book cover, and I’m running an online poll to help me make up my mind. Vote for your favourite here…

The process has brought me back to one of the classic themes of Scottish literature – that of the split personality. I find myself caught between Jekyll and Hyde mood swings – at one moment thinking about my novel cover as a writer (in a self-righteous flush of artistic purity); the next moment as a marketer, intoxicated with thoughts of how to sell the book.

So who is winning in this metaphorical fist-fight? Who in the pub car park is jumping on the other’s head?

I’m not sure yet. In the early days of the contest the writer was kicking the marketer senseless. I was done with the publishing industry and wanted to do things my way, trust my own judgement above everyone else’s. In my head I had unformed images of how the final cover would look – a distorted picture of Amsterdam, the light and the dark captured in one clean and bold image, something that would remind people of arthouse movies and Edward Hopper paintings.

But then the marketer started to fight back. I realised that many of the images I loved were too intricate, too detailed, and would work better as traditional book covers or as posters. I started looking at entries from a distance, on the other side of the room, to see which thumbnails roared off the screen. A voice in my ear whispering that what I really needed was an image in bold and violent colours that would imprint itself in people’s brains, haunt their dreams.

There are three in particular that haunt me right now.

The first is the blue design by Saza. It shows an Amsterdam townhouse, floating adrift on a foggy sea. I love it not only for its striking image, but because it reminds me of when I first moved to Amsterdam on an October evening in 2002. I got up the next day to go to my new job to find that a cloying, milky fog had descended on the city, and the simple walk through the Jordaan to the train station was suddenly a maze of canals and mist-shrouded buildings. This design really spooked me as it reminded me of that first day: a city unmoored like a ghost ship, drifting into the unknown (much like me on that first day).

The second is Ijulagogo’s black-and-red design showing the man dangling from an open window. Personally I prefer the version with the empty window – something about it reminds me of Mad Men and Don Draper’s melancholic loneliness (I was watching a lot of Mad Men when I wrote the book and it influenced the development of the main character, who works as a marketer for a whisky brand). This design leaps out at me, makes me wonder what is through that black window, what kind of darkness the man is trying to escape from (or climb into). This fits the theme of the book quite well.

The third is KPGS’s piranha mouth (the lips and teeth cleverly made from a twisted and warped Amsterdam townhouse). It reminded me of a section from the book in which one of the minor characters, an Ulsterman called Morrow, rants about the city after several pints (Neil clears throat, looks around a little embarrassed, then reads out loud…)

“This city shouldn’t exist. Built on soggy marshland, lashed with rain and wind, populated down the centuries by waves of religious and ethnic and sexual and narcotic refugees, all the odds stack up against Amsterdam, but still it fucking thrives on. It’s a bit like me, all those years of booze and Ulster fries and ciggies, but I’m still going fucking strong, getting better all the time. But you pay heed to some advice – don’t be tempted by the city’s vices. Stay true to who you are and you’ll survive the place. If you start to dabble in Amsterdam’s many pleasures, then you, my friend, are truly fucked.”

I like this idea of the city having teeth, swallowing those foolish enough to get too close to its dripping fangs. Again, this matches the story quite closely (and reminds me of some of the lost boys I met on the expat scene).

It’s a difficult choice. The poet Joseph Brodsky said: “What I like about cities is that everything is kingsize, the beauty and the ugliness.” I need my winning design to capture Amsterdam’s beauty and ugliness in one image, and also stop my inner writer and marketer beating the shit out of each other. A tall order…

Next steps? I will choose the winner towards the end of next week and then it’s on to the final edit of the book…


Cover Contest – The Latest

So far, the most surprising thing about my epublishing adventure is how much fun it is.

I had imagined that it would be a bit like internet dating in the late 1990s – the most common sense approach, but vaguely embarrassing, the kind of thing you would hide from your friends lest they bump into you in the wrong part of town, dressed in a purple tank top, holding a bunch of chrysanthemums and a helium balloon.

But no! I tell you, it’s great. For the last week, as the brave and lonely few who follow this blog know, I have been running a competition on 99designs to design the cover for my ebook. And I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.

Think about it this way – should you actually get a publishing deal, how much choice do you actually have for the cover? I honestly don’t know, but I’m guessing that publishers, be they multinationals or indie presses, probably have their preferred designers and methods, and their related constraints due to time or money (or lack of interest). I can’t imagine it is the most favourable process for the author. Sure, there is consultation, but I’m pretty certain the ultimate decision maker is the publisher.

Now, compare it to the 99 designs experience. You launch your design brief online and without any favouritism or nepotism, the designs tumble onto your page. So far 35 designers have taken part, submitting 133 designs in total. You can check them out here:

I would estimate that around 60% of these designs are better than what I see on the Kindle store. So not only do I have the absolute freedom to choose my cover, I have a huge selection of quality designs.

Now, you might say, “Yes Neil, but this costs you $500, a writer with a publishing deal would pay nothing.”

I might reply: “Yes, but I’m getting what I want, and the design is mine to own forever. So stick that up your bahookie.”

Self-publishing can happen so fast, and on your own terms. This week, I have been comparing it to my experience with the traditional model. I had always been jealous of writer friends back in Scotland who had taken the decision (albeit a difficult one) to write full-time and have various jobs on the side to make money. I always thought I was at a disadvantage because I worked full-time and had less time to write – my peers could overtake me, finish projects quicker, get to the market faster. But I now realise that what I lack in time, I can make up for in cash.

Because, in this new world, what’s really that different between an individual and a publishing house? OK, an individual self-publishing their own work still carries a certain stigma, a suspicious whiff of the bloke down the train station ranting about hell and salvation. But when you deconstruct the traditional publishing model, what’s the reality? Is there really much difference between an individual publishing their own work from their home PC, or a small press (two or three people perhaps) who likewise do everything themselves or through contractors?

Consider my experience to date (side note: my agent is a brilliant person, and many of the publishers I spoke to were also passionate and admirable individuals, so just to be clear, it’s the model I’m criticising):

1999-2006: I write my first novel, The Vodka Angels.

2006: I get an agent.

2007: After around 20 rejections, the advice from my agent, some publishers and other writers is similar – get to work on a new novel, maybe you can sell The Vodka Angels later as part of a two-book deal. I put The Vodka Angels into storage.

2007-09: I write Amsterdam Rampant.

2010: My agent tries to sell Amsterdam Rampant. Fifteen or so rejections from the big UK publishing houses. I remember those lonely afternoons in Luxembourg, pressing F5 to refresh my emails – waiting, waiting, waiting.

2011-12: I edit Amsterdam Rampant down to a leaner version to make it more commercial. More rejections. The advice from my agent, some publishers and other writers is similar – get to work on a new novel, maybe you can sell Amsterdam Rampant later…

Imagine any other business running like that. You have a quality product, there is probably demand for it (as much as any similar product out there) yet you are blocked by numerous gates and gatekeepers. Many of the gatekeepers are no more qualified than you (or less qualified) to decide if the product has a future. Think about that for a moment – why trust all those years of work to a 23-year-old marketing graduate who might have ten other novels to sell? Instead of trusting myself, with 13 years’ experience in international business, halfway through an MBA degree, and one novel to focus on selling?

It’s exciting to feel this liberated, no longer waiting at the gates, begging for scraps.

Next steps? Tomorrow I will select my finalists for the cover design contest, and next week hope to announce the winner… after that, I will be close to publishing the novel…

Judge a book by its cover

Today I launched a competition to design the cover of Amsterdam Rampant on the website 99designs (link here: ).

I decided that the Silver package (499 USD) would be a good option – I should get around 60 designs from professional designers and have the chance to go through a couple of rounds of feedback before deciding which one I like.

As I ponder the look that’s right for the book, I am drawn back to a question that has always bothered me. “What is your novel about?”

A quick summary or elevator pitch for the novel is something I’ve always found difficult – maybe because I’m too close to the novel to summarise it in a couple of soundbites (thinking about the book like an engineer would, wanting to unravel the blueprints on the floor and discuss the entire machine and all its inner workings). But probably the main reason I find it difficult is because Amsterdam Rampant doesn’t fit snugly into any one genre.

An absence of recognisable genre, of course, makes it difficult to sell a book through the traditional channels. As the thin line between editors and marketers continues to blur, the rejections I got from publishing houses often focused entirely on the commercial prospects of my project – and if, as a male writer, your work cannot be classified as crime, fantasy, or thriller, or cannot potentially be made into a movie with Hugh Grant, then alas you are in commercial Siberia.

On the other hand, maybe the lack of a recognisable genre can be an advantage. I recently read the excellent book Difficult Men by Brett Martin, which is about the new golden age of television in the last 15 years – The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, etc. There was a quote I loved from Vince Gilligan about his creation: “Breaking Bad fit no discernible genre at all – except quality.” A fine call to arms if ever I heard one.

In the 99designs blurb I described what my book is about as follows:

“There’s no place quite like Amsterdam for losing yourself, and Fin McPhail is one of the lost.

It wasn’t supposed to end up like this. Amsterdam was going to be a fresh start away from all his problems back in Scotland. His new life started well enough, with a new job, big plans, and sobriety. But as winter tightened its grip, Fin reverted back to his old temptations, slowly edging into Amsterdam’s underworld…

And now, not only is Fin being followed by a psychopath, but his old life is hurtling back towards him in the shape of a stag party – four reprobates from his hometown in Scotland, including his future brother-in-law and the former school bully – will arrive in the city this evening. With time running out and nothing left to lose, he knows there is only one course of action left – do what’s right for his sister…”

My goal was to write a book that would be uncompromising and riotously entertaining. Influences include:

WRITERS – Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Franzen, Roddy Doyle, Charles Bukowski
MOVIES – In Bruges, Trainspotting, Stand By Me
TV – Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men

The competition to design my cover runs for 1 week, after which I will make a decision. I will post the designs here later this week – you will have a chance to vote on your favourite design, so watch this space, pop-pickers!