Monday, September 3, 2012

Covers That Never Were!

Have a think - and this is open to wider discussion - about the style that we could or should aim for with fan produced covers. Have a flick through the gallery in the last post and remember we are trying to give the illusion on a computer screen of a paperback. In this respect, patterning our designs on hardcopy principles, there are a number of great resources available to us for free on line, not least of which is Joel Friedlander's   Monthly eBook Cover Design Awards, even though he sadly does not seem to recognise that a pdf can be in any physical format.

Do we, for instance want to make a cover that strongly follows a design that has been used in the past? I think when you consider the genre that we are writing in - fan fiction that is meant to resonate the works of past professionals? There are a number of faux covers on the internet, covers of imaginary paperbacks that might have been published in the past. The most recent ones I've spotted are a series of covers done by Arcas-Art on DeviantArt of an imaginary series called The Seekers, which the artist introduces thus...

Remember back in 1968 when the battle fleet from Procyon invaded and our only solution was to use Tesla’s time machine which the Pentagon was keeping secret in their vaults and we had to change to a different time stream where Kennedy was assassinated and Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons? Well I do (perhaps thanks to my tinfoil beanie!?). And I long for what we lost – that spin off series from the hugely successful “Star Trek”, called “The Seekers”.

For your consideration (as senator Serling used to say) I submit the novelization book covers from that lost timeline. The one-season series spin-off featured the new tiny Federation scout ship designed by 7-year-old Masao Okazaki through the studio fan-mail-in contest. It followed the adventures of this intimate crew on a series of epsidoes that would set a new standard for TV sci-fi that would not be met for decades. Adapted by sci-fi author Frederic Brown, these novels sold at least as well as their Star Trek counterparts….at least in their own timeline.

Browse the artist's gallery for more faux book covers but I thought that these should particularly be brought to your attention to show how following a certain style of book cover - in this case the Bantam novels - can evince a certain era.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

On Trek Fan-produced Book Covers

As the old saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover... and yet this is exactly what we do with our traditional print media! You browse the shelves, something catches your eye, perhaps only the spine, so you pick it up, check out the cover then flip it over and read the back promo-text ... and nine-times-out-of-ten your decision has been made!

The cover is just as much a communication media as the writing inside the book: it tells the prospective reader, using visual cues, what they can expect from this book. Everything written is unique in some way and a publisher treads a fine line between preserving that unique quality whilst at the same time presenting the publication in such a way as to make it recognisable and attractive to its target audience. For example our Trekzine, Personal Logs, needed to be recognisable as...
  • short stories and art...
  • about Star Trek, any series and era...
  • a wide range of story types from action/adventure to personal relationship dramas...
  • Fan produced...
  • rated PG13 or less...
All of these key points, which by the way would be tags you would need to apply to your work where possible, should be recognisable from the cover either by being spelled out in the promotional blurb or by recognisable memes in the cover art, font, colour scheme or layout of the cover

Does an illustration have to accurately record something that happens in the story? That is a bitterly fought argument! My own thoughts on the matter are: why can't you have both? A cover that sells the story and accurately shows a scene in the story? Given that a cover might have a minor difference with the story but really ticks all the boxes to draw the casual browser, I would only veto it if the author vehemently disagreed with it – mainly because if they felt that strongly about it then others who read it and liked it might as well.

Marion Gropen puts it this way on the Self-Publishing Yahoo Group, “If you put art that looks like a cozy mystery on an urban fantasy, it doesn't matter that the room depicted actually appears in the book. The reader who buys it will be expecting a cozy, and they'll be annoyed when it's not. And the reader who actually would like your book probably won't buy it, based on that cover image.”

So what do I look for in a cover? Two things. Primarily I'm looking for something that will allow the prospective reader to accurately identify the style, genre and content of the story. This might sound “commercial” to you - a strange thing to say about a fan production! - but there is a language and symbology to covers, just as there is to road signs and food packaging, and it is this that will make the initial connection between your book and the browsing reader - especially for an online publication where there is no practical need for a back cover.

However whilst showing how this is similar to other stories the prospective reader might have read, it also needs to explain how it is different as well. It needs to show the unique spark that will make the story memorable for the reader. Hopefully so much so that they will go looking for others thing the author has written!

Remember that what we as amateur publishers want to do is to emulate professional publishers right up to, but not including the vast profits they make! The writer creates the stories, we package it in such a way as to attract an audience for it and facilitate the distribution of the finished works. How does one do that for a Star Trek fan produced fiction? Well, how better to find out than to study the history of Star Trek book covers? Have a flick through Arnold E. van Beverhoudt, Jr's Sandcastle V.I. gallery of scans of the covers in his possession starting from HERE...
  • The Bantam TV Adaptations The focus is brand-recognition of Star Trek and that it is part of a series of a collectable anthologies which you can follow. Very SciFi from the Analog generation.
  • The Bantam Original Series Novels The focus is on the fact that they are Science Fiction - spacescapes and exotic aliens - rather than the Original Series characters.
  • The Pocket Books Original Series Novels This is what most people think of when you say, Original Series paperbacks – everyone has some! Follow the development of a standard format, almost a trademark look, that was instantly identifiable as Star Trek and focused on the characters - almost always Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
  • The Pocket Book TNG Novels Three dimensional serif fonts, photos or photorealistic graphics, no borders, almost Spartan covers
  • The Pocket Book DSN Novels The later DSN covers between 2002 – 2009 were very artistic, almost abstract designs with a larger more prominent portrait and traditional Trek sans serif fonts
  • The Pocket Book Voyager Novels Interesting to note that the Voyager covers went from portraits of characters in the String Theory series of 2006 to spacescapes in 2009 – 2011, which seems to suggest to me that the books were moving their focus away from the characters to content
  • The Pocket Book Enterprise Novels The variety of themes on Enterprise book covers, in addition to characters, suggests to me that Pocket Books never really settled on whether this series should be character focused or plot-centred. Always good, sometimes artistic design, with the series title once again featured
  • The Book covers shown on Memory Alphas' upcoming list don't show any surprises, other than a return from the recent spacescapes to character portraits once again. 
 What are your opinions of the way Trek book covers have changed over the years?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pdf Publishing: Control AND Convenience!

  • Books are print media which are created by book designers to create a specific reading experience for the reader. To do this they need to have control over the output that you receive - the font, its size, the overall look of the page, in fact the whole book itself from cover to cover.
  • eBooks are electronic media that require flexibility for the text to be displayed in a legible manner over any number of devises and screen sizes. They also allow the reader the freedom to choose the font and font size they prefer for their eyesight and reading speed.
In both cases, either as the book designer or as the eBook reader, you are taking the creative work of another and displaying it how you see fit. In the former case it is placed in a carefully controlled environment to give a specific effect. In the latter you (the reader) take the creative work and you display it however the whim takes you. In some cases it might work well, in most others it will not.

Do you see my point? I'm treading close to an entrenched discussion I have with my college student son about art as communication (oh, didn't we have fun at last year's Picasso exhibit at the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art!!!) Should a literary work be presented to a reader in a controlled environment or should they be given the raw content to experience in any manner they see fit?

As an amateur publisher of fan produced works, I see my job as being the author's partner in presenting their work to as wide an audience as possible and in as effective and stimulating a manner as possible. It is a fact of our modern world that time pressures are reducing our free time to read so that a convenient, if less than perfectly displayed, medium - the eBook - has its place. I'm still not sold that eBooks must, by definition, be plain. I've not done any development work on what is possible with them but I'm sure there are options that an eBook publisher can take that can improve this medium of display, not least being a great cover!

The other option, hard-copy, is closed to us because we publish fan fiction. I've long since given up on the idea that I will ever hold in my hot little hands one of the books we publish online as a physical paperback. Book printing has always been a culturally and politically hot potato so expecting the publishing industry to see my point of view is unlikely.

I believe though that we have found a third option that suits our purposes beautifully! Pdf publishing.

Before you reach for the 'Close Tab' button, dismissing us as just another bunch of amateurs who can't grasp the 'Big Picture', let me introduce you to our pdf publishing platform - you might be surprised with what you can do with the Old Girl these days!

One of the things, for example, that was a drawback with pdf was that you had to actually download the pdf before you could open it up and look at it. This was more of a problem on older systems where internet connections were slow and expensive. All browsers now have it as a plug-in so that you can click on a link and it will open in everything from Explorer to Opera. There are a number of web-based pdf viewers that have taken this a step further by adding free online storage, making them into on-line publishing platforms.

Our choice is Issuu and this is an example of one of our early books - an anthology of short stories formatted as an A5 Digest.

Go ahead, click the viewer! What you see is just a preview and when you click on it, or on the hyperlink below the viewer, you go to the full-screen viewer. There is so much to say about it that I can only touch on the highlights here.

It's Accessible - Sure, the software for ePub and Mobi is free and easy to download but is there a computer operating today that doesn't have Adobe Acrobat on it?

It's Archivable - You can download all our books as pdf files for free and they can be stored on any electronic media from your computer's hard drive to your archive of choice in "the cloud". You own it and can save it for posterity.

It's Future Proof - One of the more Luddite complaints against eBooks is that the software that your expensive eBooks are saved in might someday become unsupported. One thing you can bet money on is that Adobe Acrobat will be the Latin of 23rd Century computer users! It might not still be commonly used but it will be readable.

It's Graphical - How many eBook graphic novels have you seen? You probably won't see many either until the next generation of eReaders start to take advantage of the new standards. Because pdf faithfully recreates the printed page in high resolution and colour rendering, graphic novels are the mainstay of our book list!

It's Visible - You can embed viewers that will show different sized teaser viewers on social media sites from Blogger to WordPress and LiveJournal, from Orkut, MySpace and Joomla to Tumblr, Typepad and Facebook! All done using automatically generated code.

In fact, it is Very Visible! - Ever wanted your very own bookshelf? I embedded this into this page in less than five minutes!

There's more to be said, much more! Over the next few weeks I'll show you what we've done and how you can do it yourself - online publication that faithfully recreates on the screen anything that you can create with a word processor or DTP software and output as a pdf.

Of course I can't guarantee it will be a good book - only you can do that!

I'm a publisher, Jim, not a magician!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A book is a book is a book... right?

Most creative amateurs who strive to make something, agree that the way to improve is to learn from professionals. I say most because there are a significant few who have the idea that they have some mutant creative power whereby they know better than the people who have invested a significant portion of their lives to learning their craft, in most cases take pride in their achievements and do it so well that people will pay them to do it.

When it comes to publishing, I am strictly Little League! Certainly I try my best to present an author's work in its best light and I have some specific ideas and guidelines that this work allows me to experiment with, but I am a realist: the fast-track to success lies in learning from the experience of those who have 'been there and done that'.

Luckily a thriving community has grown up around the concept of self-publishing, the idea that authors can publish their own books. I've mentioned before the Self-Publishing Yahoogroup, which is a prolific and supportive group of authors and small publishers, but arguably the most helpful and authoritative website would have to be Joel Friedlander's, The Book Designer. With information ranging from obscure but important technical details to general commentaries on aesthetics, Joel shows a depth and breadth of knowledge in his field that makes his website required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

One of the recurring themes that Joel puts forward is that eBooks as they stand are a danger to hard-copy books, that they are the Death of Book Design and "Do Violence to the Concept of a Book"...

Whilst Joel is not a one-eyed hater of eBooks, a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek and he has in fact got a substantial section on creating eBooks in his 'Start Here' section, his professional career revolves around creating beautiful books and he recognises that this is something that eBooks are not set up to allow. I believe I see Joel's point and if I may paraphrase, I see it as a case of the same content being distributed by different media - eBooks and hard-copy books. How, you might ask, can they be different media? They both convey the written word of exactly the same text, and that is precisely the point: they convey the same content but as an entirely different experience.
Let me give you an example.
The last hard copy book I bought was "El Borak and Other Desert Adventures", a collection of some of Robert Ervin Howard's pulp adventures set in the Far East illustrated with copious internal black & white artworks by Tim Bradstreet and Tim & Ruth Keegan. However I live in Australia where pretty much all of these stories are now in the public domain, so I could have downloaded them all from Project Gutenberg Australia as either txt files or html - so why did I buy this book?
Well, besides the glaring editing errors? Whoever had submitted "The Daughter of Erlik Khan" to Project Gutenberg had failed to note that the opening section was probably a promotional text from the flyleaf and that the closing chapter, "chapter 11" was in fact the opening section of another story, "Swords of the Hills" - probably more promotional text from the inside back cover! Could it be the superlative artwork? The quality construction of the trade paperback? The collector's passion of owning the stories that I loved? The nostalgia factor of holding in my hands lost hours from my youth?

I bought an experience. I gained a possession, something that has an intrinsic meaning for me. Books are more than just the content, the words which the author has strung together so skilfully. They are an artifact, crafted by book designers, to enhance your reading experience and, yes, design does matter!

So why, if we are to believe Joel, are eBooks such an antithesis to good book design? In their current form, nearly all the individual factors that the designer utilises to make them individual are now arbitrary, at the whim of the reader or severely limited in choice. The font, its size, the page size and orientation - they can all be changed by the reader or are dictated by the eReader. This in turn affects the page  numbering, the flow of the text, where page breaks occur, the position of illustrations and the amount of white space at chapter ends.

Joel is arguing semantics of what a book is and I can see his point of view, that an eBook is only slightly closer related to a hard copy book than it is to an audio book, that it's medium is the electronic file and not the printed word.

But is this the end of the story? Two choices? Hard-copy or eBook? I don't believe so. 

Because TrekUnited Publishing publish fan fiction I will almost certainly never see anything printed in hard-copy under our imprint . We've published ePubs and Mobis in the past, courtesy of Richard Merk's help, and I intend working on more in the near future, but...

[Cue suspenseful Star Wars music] There is another!

[Fade to black. Roll credits.] To Be Continued!

The Crossroads

The printing and publishing industry stands at a crossroads at the time of writing.

Major book retailing chains in Australia and the United States, are trying desperately to “trade out” of what could amount to receivership. Many blame the changing face of publishing brought about by the computer age and the internet in particular and there can be no doubt that the public's buying habits have changed dramatically.

Our lives as readers have changed. Whereas in the past I would spend my afternoons ensconced in the local library or buying comics from my local newsagent, now I am more likely to find my reading material online. In the not-so-distant past my only option for buying books would be a bookshop, either the small local shop or one of the specialist stores in the city. Today, the physical limitations of getting my reading material have all but disappeared. Book not available locally or in Australia? Out of print? With the click of a few buttons I can search for and buy a far wider range of books, in most cases at a more competitive price as well.

I love books and reading. My house and every available storage space in it is filled with hardbacks and paperbacks ranging from a family heirloom, Sunday School prize of my mother-in-law's to a new hardback best-seller I bought for my birthday.

I have a lot of sympathy for the printing industry and I feel that they are the victim of being dependent on the publishers who are now abandoning them in favour of new manufacturing and distribution practices. Authors need to think outside the square and avail themselves of the myriad of options that are open to them. Publishers are no longer the omnipotent Gods of the publishing pantheon! The tyranny of scale that made them the sole providers of mass produced books for the common folk have been broken by new technologies and business models.

On the one hand we have seen them all but replaced by the new leviathans of online commerce – Amazon and Barns & Noble. Shopping from home, I can browse a catalogue that not only holds the latest best-sellers but the obscure titles of an author's back-list. I can order a copy in any format it has been released in: hardback, paperback, audiobook, video or graphic novel. I have to wait for it to be mailed out to me and freight is an added expense but if price is an issue I can often get second hand copies at ridiculously low prices.

This is the mass-marketing approach that is the equivalent of the 'convenience food' outlet, but when a Macdonald's moved into your town, did all the restaurants go out of business? No, they survived by focusing on the niche market, those who wanted an intimate, personal service.

I believe we will see the rise of specialist or "boutique" printers in the same way that small breweries, bakeries, and wineries have found that they can prosper by providing a quality, exclusive product rather than competing with the multinationals for the bulk, mass market.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Originality in Fan Productions

Lack of originality is another defect that is pinned on fan productions and I will go so far as to say that breathing originality into *any* derivative work, irrespective of whether it is fan-made or professional, is one of the many major challenges a writer and producer is faced with.

As regards the originality of fan productions, I don't believe you can just throw out a blanket generalisation over them all because some are more susceptible than others.

As I've said before, your base level fan fiction author couldn't give a Tinker's what you think of their work because they are doing it for their own satisfaction and although they will be pleased if you complement their work, they aren't really interested in your critique because they didn't write it to exercise their art and are not interested in trying to improve. I'll not condemn them because writing for any purpose can lead to bigger and better things and bring them closer to the realisation that there might be a bigger audience than one for their work and will some day start to listen to critique which will lead them onto the path towards learning how to express themselves better.

You might have noticed that I have made the distinction between fan productions that use Canon characters and those that use OC's or Original Characters? This is no idle speculation, it is at the same time one of the things that frees us and a responsibility that binds us.

I very seldom do anything with canon characters because to write something that develops our appreciation of them is hard, *very* hard. I do however use canon races, settings, technology, backgrounds, etc so I'll stand up and be counted on that part. Have I used them with originality? That's for the audience to say, I suppose. I've had positive feedback, from die-hard fans as well as audio buffs, I am only one part of the small cast and crew who made it what it is but in general I think of it is something I'm proud to be associated with.

Star Trek Excelsior, Outpost, Eras, Henglaar MD - there is quite a healthy list of Star Trek fan audio dramas thank you very much - are examples of fan productions that use OC's and yet the canon details that they are built on are meticulously checked to make sure that they conform with the ideas of the original writers. The Klingons are honourable and warlike, the Vulcans are logical and unemotional, the Feddies are driven by an ethical code of conduct whilst playing the wildcard of humanity.

The Star Trek universe was created by professional writers, actors, designers and producers using an investment of hard cash from the entertainment industry which means that, no matter how loosely your production is based on the copyrighted work, it is still a fan production and as such must be bound by the fan production rules of engagement - no diverting revenue, all credit acknowledged...

How much harder is it to reconcile making a derivative work using canon characters? To my mind that is an immense task and, if done well, adds immensely to the franchise - done poorly, it can ring its death knell!

I'll admit to being a Batman fan. The tortured, brooding character is iconic. I was entertained but only occasionally impressed by the early movies, I was stunned by the Batman Begins reboot, I've listened to some of the OTR classics and I've heard promo excerpts from Dirk Mag's Knightfall which one of these days I've got to buy a copy of. I enjoyed Pete Milan & Seth Adam Sher's Ace of Detectives (a finalist for a 2007 Parsec Award) and I absolutely loved Laura Post's Batman: No Man's Land, which has been sadly in abeyance for two years.

Why did the early movies fail to convey the essence of the Dark Knight when the fan productions did? Because the studio played it for kitsch, they thought the public wanted an entertaining Batman and so they gave them a Batman (Val Kilmer) who actually smiled once! It was only with Batman Begins that they actually started to show the character the respect it deserved and were rewarded by critical acclaim.

Therein lies the crux of creating something based on an earlier work, especially something that was successful or has a strong fan following - you have to find the essence of the character/s and create something that respects that core and develops on it.

This is the usual failure of baseline fan fiction because a fan will generally want to write something that shows a character as they would like them to be and in so doing flies in the face of canon. Spock loves Kirk, the Emperor Palpatine cries, Dante from Devil May Cry becomes a Pokemon trainer! Yes, it has all happened in the fertile mind of a fan but is it Trek / Wars / DMC? Hey, I believe in IDIC so do whatever turns you on baby, just don't expect me to include it with fan productions that attempt to address their canon with some degree of accuracy. In the over-the-top world of Star Wars, the Emperor Palpatine, certainly in ep's 1-3, is as caring-and-sharing as Atilla the Hun! Works that make no attempt to rationalise these changes of character are called character rape by the unkind and I find them hard to defend.

The three times I can remember writing something using Trek canon characters I have tried to write about them based on my understanding of them from canon but taking it just a little further. I would no more have one of the canon characters I have gained so much enjoyment from do something out of character than I would write a lie about a real person.

So does that mean we need to regurgitate carbon copies of canon episodes? That would indeed be unoriginal but using canon characters to say something new? Why is Nechayev such a hard case? What would it have been like at the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Enterprise-D at Veridian 3? What would happen if...? What happened next? Why didn't they...? What are the consequences of...?

Hard to do in Star Trek but even harder in any franchise that depends on the characters for its driving force: Buffy is a perfect example because without those central characters Sunnydale is just the same as any other Hellmount!

I suppose my point is that originality of premise, whilst creatively admirable, is not an automatic ticket to greatness just as it should not be assumed that it is impossible for a derivative work to be original. I've listened to some Indie audio dramas that have laboured valiantly to create an interesting, original fictional setting for their work and just not made it, whilst I've also heard some fan shows that either re-captured the original nicely or took them in new directions... and vice versa!

Whilst I will admit to open admiration of anyone who creates an interesting original fictional setting are we saying here that anyone's work which is based on another's fictional setting is to be automatically castigated? Dirk Maggs' Batman? Joss Whedon's Avengers? Joss is not averse to wanting to place his own personal stamp on franchises that he admires and I dare say the suits at DC are collectively kicking themselves for not letting him have his way with Wonder Woman... creatively speaking of course!
Talk to me of originality and, I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing

On The Honesty of Star Trek Fan Productions

Fan productions have a number of innate advantages over professional work. Being free from commercial restraints is one such boon – I only have to worry about what I want to put into my creation, not what my audience demands. If I wish to write a political polemic that espouses the virtues of Ferengi existentialism I don't have to worry that it won't sell! We can, and many do, put whatever message we want into our fiction without worrying about the interference of media executives.

Because my work is free from the need to be a financial success I can take any chance I desire without worrying if it will make enough money from the mugs and mouse mats I might be selling from my website to pay for the server costs for the month.

If I am confident about what I am trying to do, I can call down to the Engine Room, “Full speed ahead and damn the critics!”

Without belittling the required technical knowledge needed to be a critic, all too often their reviews are not constructive and survive on the public's vicarious enjoyment of their negative attitude. All to often they use the cheap-shot yuks of Mary Sue jokes to take a holier-than-thou attitude towards fan productions. Alas, they suffer from the same commercial imperative as others who see their work as a salable commodity: their purpose is not to improve the work of those being reviewed but to entertain the public and in so doing improve their Alexa web ranking.

Years ago I wanted to write an audio drama series that dealt with the themes of aggression, bravery and honour - Tales of Death and Honour - and I chose to build my premise on the diametrically opposed cultures of the Klingon and Vulcan in Star Trek. Knowledge of he TV program and movies is so pervasive throughout Western Society and beyond that there would be few who can read the English language who would not have a working knowledge of it! The very names are synonymous with the concepts of aggression and honour as against pacifism and logic.

[sighs] So why not do the same thing based on your own fictional universe, I hear you say? Because my story requires that I use these two memes, because if I tried to make my own fictional universe that could do the same thing, all I would be doing would be copying the Star Trek universe and giving it different names. That, dear reader, is true plagiary to my mind!

I will accept the slings and arrows that say this is a cop-out and my only defense is that I'm a Trek fan who has such an immense respect for the fictional universe which the professionals have created that my own creative processes march in synch with theirs.

Like most Star Trek fan producers, as I've said before, for the most part I don't use canon characters - all my characters and situations are original and simply use the Star Trek fictional universe as a framework. However my work is still a fan production and I must acknowledge my debt to those professionals who made the fictional universe - the memes of Klingon and Vulcan - so engrained in popular culture. The actors, the costumers, the prosthetics makers, Marc Okrand and a dozen different writers, directors, producers, Paramount, Desilu and The Great Bird of The Galaxy.

So, in answer to the question how do I rationalise using someone else's Intellectual Property to tell my own story, all I can say is that I honour the purpose of the law rather than the letter of the law. The purpose of the law is to provide a mechanism of monetary return to the creator to recompense them for their work. The copyright owners and licensees of Star Trek have made a small fortune out of me over the years by my purchase of books, merchandise, role playing games, movie tickets, costumes (yes, I am the proud owner of an Enterprise era uniform that I will be wearing to Supanova this year) and all I ask in return is that they allow me to develop my fandom along creative lines.

Douglas Bader in Reach For The Sky says, "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." Rules are created for a reason - find out what that reason is, address that problem and then you have honoured the rule. The purpose of copyright is to either make money for the creator or to make sure that they do not lose any money that they might otherwise make.

If I do NOT write my audio drama series it will not make one extra penny for Paramount. I am not given any realistic mechanism for paying Paramount for using their IP. I could buy a license but since I don't have a six-figure sum sitting in my back pocket this is unrealistic. If I could pay Paramount $10-$50 for a mini-license to write a fan production on the proviso that I make no profit on it, I would be delighted to do so but I can't.

So if I want to exercise my fan experience creatively as an audio drama I have two choices: give them indirect profit and ensure that no money is diverted from them that they would otherwise make.
  • My story supports their fictional universe, develops it and, hopefully, enhances it.
  • By doing so it keeps interest alive in their IP so that existing fans will continue their support of the franchise and new fans will be introduced to it.
  • This is viral promotion - something that professionals paid thousands are struggling to do for them commercially. I give it to them for free.
  • Nothing that I do generates any revenue - I don't have any Tales of Death and Honour T shirts, mugs or mouse mats for sale. If I did, these could be seen as a revenue that is trading at least in part on their IP.
  • In the same way, I don't have a tip jar for myself or a charity (more's the pity) because these could be seen as a revenue that is generated in part on their IP.

Yes, I am using their Intellectual Property but I'm given no realistic way of paying for it, so I use it in a way that gives them indirect revenue and does not divert revenue from them. All I ask in return is to add a rider to my work: "The author reserves the moral right to be identified as the creator of any original work." This is not just ego on my part, it also safeguards them if my work generates any negative publicity. If the public thinks it is crap, its my fault but if it is good I would ask that my original contributions be acknowledged.

Not too much to ask I think.

By the way, with regards to usage of canon characters, I've since remembered that the audio drama, Star Trek Grissom uses canon characters and extrapolates on the classic movie era storyline leading up to The Search For Spock. However the characters are a small part of the whole production and the audience's foreknowledge of the Grissom's tragic fate gives the whole production a dramatic flare that tinges our developing love of the characters. Only an Irishman could think up this!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Writing For The Media 1: Graphic Novels

Its not immediately apparent that the same story needs to be written different ways to suit the media.

One of the best investments I ever made was to buy a copy of Straczinsky's Scriptwriting - invaluable advice from someone who has produced works in all the disciplines he writes about: film, TV, stage, radio, animation... For each of them you, the aspiring author, have to follow certain rules to avoid the common pitfalls and make the most of the strength's of each medium.

A comic or graphic novel, for example, has to be written to deliver its story via words and pictures, so the successful comic or graphic novel creator needs to pay equal attention to both. Ever read a comic book adaptation of a film and wondered why it is different in subtle details from the original? Its because things that are impressive on the screen don't always translate well into two dimensional graphics, for example an action sequence, and conversely there are ways that a comic can go beyond a film, for example by verbalising thoughts or emphasising the 'God view'.

By the same token, you need to be an artist as well in that you need to create a story on the page that conveys the plot as effectively as possible, creating images that bring the storyline to life for the reader. To do this you need to design the impact of the page usually, but not always, done with a storyboard, even before you start creating the graphic resources to make up your panels.

By graphic resources I mean the pictures and this used to be the sticking point for amateurs in the past. Dreaming of breaking into comics meant paying your dues at art school, developing skills in sketching, inking, colouring, learning about composition, anatomy and the use of light and colour. If you weren't planning on taking it up professionally, it was too much for an amateur to take on.

As with many skill-sets from the past, technology has come to the rescue of the modern Everyman. Don't get me wrong, there are many amateur artists who have the skill and talent to use pencil, pen and colour to create comics on paper and I am truly in awe of some of the work I see on deviantArt today. For the rest of we mere mortals, there are drawing aids that show that you are using your brain as well as your artistic talent.

I, for example, have used rotoscoping effectively to help me with composition and anatomy but it is by no means the only reason for using a light table. If you go the traditional pencil - paper - pen route, a light table was generally used to turn a rough pencil sketch into 'tight pencils' and later, with a clean sheet of paper, to the final inks as shown by Clay Butler on his tutorial of how he has drawn his comic strip over the years. Paul C. Stauffer III also has a good Youtube video - be sure to check the comments.

Computer graphics software are the new light box! You've got more ways to go than you can shake a stick at!

I'm lucky to be associated with two rather talented graphic novel creators who work in Bryce/Poser/DAZ. It's popular, it can give you a close to photo-realistic finished product, but it is by no means the only way to go. Machinima - using a game engine to capture your graphics - is even easier and fans have used programs ranging from Star Trek: Elite Force to Star Trek: Online - Ray Martin has done some great work on Star Trek: Saladin and his STO comics are under his third era at the bottom of the page. You can read how they do it plus browse another webcomic on the STO forum HERE.

Of course, I wouldn't try to do it yourself. Just as you probably couldn't voice the audiobook version, animate the cartoon, program the video game and write the music for the opera of "Knight's Haven", you'd do best to find the best designer and graphics editor you can.

How would *I* do it? Ah! Now that would be telling!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Producer's Chair

I am by no means an expert at being the head of a production but I base my ideas regarding the group dynamics of project management on Larry Nemecek's management style when I worked with him on SciFi Studios Magazine, which I call the "Conductor" approach...

When people go to an orchestral recital they go for the experience of listening to an orchestra. They don't go to listen to the piano, the brass section or the clarinet player, they go to listen to the whole orchestra. This means that the orchestra has to perform as a group - they have to be in time and in tune. As the brass fades out, the strings fade in with the percussion giving a subliminal beat to it all. If one section of the orchestra is bad then the whole production suffers. If the percussion is out of time or the piano out of tune, then no matter how good the strings are, the recital will get bad reviews.

The conductor doesn't just wave his baton to keep them all in time - watch him next time. You'll see him point to the lead violinist when it is time for him to start, he'll wave in the cellos when they have to come to the fore and punch a fist to the base drummer when he has to give a roll of thunder. During a practise if any of the sections or players doesn't follow his direction, he'll stop the orchestra, talk to them, maybe get them to run through their section and they will re-start. He'll work with the individual sections and with individual players as required.

This goes beyond talking about the interaction of people in a project, you can include all the resources of a project in this analogy! Imagine that the strings are the visual aspects of the production, the wind might be the audio, the brass is the promotion and the percussion the content, for example the script. Just as the conductor chooses the members of his orchestra, the producer of an animation will choose his animators, his promotional agent, script-writer and voice actors. These are the manpower resources of the project, to which are added the infrastructure resources such as software, special effects, music, etc.

Once chosen the conductor's or producer's job is to maximise the efficiency of every aspect the "orchestra". In the case of infrastructure the responsibility for their efficient use lies with the production staff who use them, for argument's sake we'll say the producer, but for manpower resources - people - he has to work *with* them to encourage them to produce their best. This might require him to give direction sometimes, as in "Jenny, your character is a Klingon warrior - I need more raspy, gutteral lower registers." However he CANNOT do the performance himself, all he can do is help and encourage the performer. Your pianist might be the best in the country, but in the context of this production, he takes his direction from the conductor.

I can't stress that highly enough. The conductor can't play every instrument because frankly that's not his purpose. He's there to lead the whole orchestra to encourage them to give their very best in the performance, to act as quality control by giving them feedback on what they are doing and to give them direction to perform their role in this particular performance. Just as a musician auditions for a spot in an orchestra, a voice actor auditions for a spot in an audio drama and a writer will pitch their story for inclusion in your anthology. They sign on because they want the gig, because they want to perform Bach or Beethoven, it might be because they want to expand their creative horizons, or, if they are a professional, because they want the money. They want to give their best, if they are a pro it might be because they have to protect their reputation, as an amateur its because of the like to play their instrument, they enjoy being part of an orchestra and they want to "push the envelope" creatively.

Performers perform, actors act. This is in their nature, this is what you sign them on board to do. To sign them on and then not allow them to act, to control the lift of every eyebrow, flies in the face of reason. If you want this kind of control then you need to think very seriously about whether you want your project to be a group production or a one-man-show. This is a viable option - Geoff James' Borg Wars is the perfect example - but it is more labour intensive, slower and, unless you are a Renaissance man, there is a very real possibility that an aspect that you are weak in will drag your production down unfairly.

If you choose to make your project into a group endeavor then you are still the prime-mover for the production but you have to learn to delegate work without micro-managing. Give direction and quality control to keep all the individual parts of the production, the performers in the orchestra, working together to deliver the best possible result, but allow the individuals involved to give creative input, respect what they do and give them credit for it on the night.

When I publish a magazine, I work with the individual artists and authors to get them to deliver their very best. If an artist is doing the cover art for a story, I have to make sure the two match - a line art of Kirk in the foreground with Spock looking on will be totally inappropriate for a story which is all about Spock and where Kirk only has a walk-on part. However I can't control the pen that does the sketch, the airbrush that gives it colour or the mind that writes the story, all of these things have far more to do with the success of the 'zine than my editorial direction.

When I write scripts for an audio drama, I'll add a single word to a line of delivery to show how I want the line delivered: angrily, slyly, sneeringly, whispered, with awe, testily. I might give more detailed direction when I hand the lines out: "try to exude strength of character even though totally exhausted" was one I gave one time and astonishingly the VA gave me exactly what I wanted! In fact she added something to it that I had never considered and thus made it that much better! Your cast and crew will deliver more if they are encouraged than if they are ordered.

So whether you are shooting a film, publishing a newsletter or coaching a football team always keep in mind that you are part of a team and that your contribution is simply to keep the group's overall performance on track for achieving your goals by encouraging all the individuals involved to deliver their part to the best of their ability.

They might throw roses at your feet but you have to share every bouquet with your ensemble.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book trailers - Virtual book covers?

This post came about in most circuitous manner! The idea was stimulated by a correspondence thread on the Self-Publishing Yahoo Group that led to a great article about Scott Sigler which made me update the ol' House L'Stok YouTube channel and make up a playlist of examples to help me crystalise my thoughts on them. These are my choices below, three top-line professional jobs, Scott Sigler's semi-pro and a first-time DIY job.... 

So what are they? I mean, obviously they are promotional pieces to entice the viewer to read the book they promote, but *how* do they do it? If we know this we can assess what is needed to make an effective book trailer.

Traditionally, promoting a book was the job of the book itself, its physical "packaging" if you will - the cover, the spine, back cover and dustcover flaps. These were where you would get the promotional blurb about the book, the author and the series or fanchise that it was a part of.  This sent me off on a tangent defining my thoughts on book covers and, since it is vital to the artistic direction of our books, I've posted the result on our deviantArt account, "On Book Covers"

What struck me the most was that, of the elements that I mentioned - cover, spine, back cover and dustcover flaps - only the front cover exists on an eBook! Now, you can do a lot with a cover, identify the fanchise, the genre and make a unique statement that can draw the reader, but there is a lot that you've dropped. What about all the material that was covered on the back cover? Often you'd get a continuation or wraparound graphic from the front, two or three paragraphs of promotional text and icons that would show the trademarks, copyright, age classification, prequel/sequel info... A relic of the hardcover, the inside back flap was the domain of information about the author, usually presided over by a cheesy photograph. All of this information was there in the reader's hands when they picked it up from the bookshelf. How is an eBook reader going to get that kind of in-depth information?

Could a video book trailer take their place?

[To be Continued]

Saturday, April 7, 2012

eBook 101

What, I hear some of you say, is an eBook? Some people have very specific ideas and swear allegiance to one "flavour" ar another however I take a broader view by saying that ePublishing covers the electronic publishing of virtually any written works on the internet. What do they look like? What can you do with them that you can't do with a Newsgroup, forum post or blog? Why, in other words, should an author go to the bother of publishing his work as an eBook at all? There is no shortage of general commentary on the advantages - and disadvantages - of ebooks on the internet. There are specific cost benefits, author incentives, and the big debate at the moment is (to oversimplify) whether the retail price of eBooks should be artificially inflated to be the same as the hard copy or not - they are definitely more environmentally friendly!

How does all this affect the fan fiction community? Cost considerations mean nothing to us because we can't profit on any Star Trek works. What we can take from this is that eBooks are coming of age! They are no longer an immature technology, replete with a half-dozen different formats competing on hardware exclusive platforms - reminiscent of the wars between Apple and Microsoft or VHS and Beta. Today we have a technology that has become accepted not only by the great unwashed but the chic, the rich-and-famous and the tech-savvy. People are now looking with envy over the shoulders of those who are flicking through their iPad as against the "what-a-geek" sneers I used to get when I read stuff on my iPaq years ago.

What we have is a whole new frontier to explore, a new readerbase.

Specifically, this wide acceptance of eBooks means that fan fiction writers can now list their books right alongside those of professional writers! Maybe not on the same websites, you'll not get your fanfic listed on Barnes & Noble or Amazon, but there is no reason why we can't have them listed on similar amateur fiction sites. Production-wise we are on pretty much an even playing field, unlike the traditional printing industry, where making a book requires printing and and binding equipment that is beyond the grasp of the amateur (or is it?). With care and attention, you can create an eBook that looks exactly the same as the eBooks made by professionals!

How do they compare to the pdf books that we published in 2008? I'll be honest with you and say that eBooks are not as pretty. The 'page-turning' reading applications like Issuu are to my mind, the closest thing you can get to the experience of reading a book on a computer.

Have a look at "The Black Gate", a book by Richard Merk, part of his Banshee Squadron fan fiction series. Richard has whole-heartedly thrown himself into making eBooks and it is only fitting that we use one of his books as an example of what we are doing.

The heart of your eBook library is, like any library, the way that it is organised. Think about what a public library has to do. They get all sorts of new media in, they prepare it for distribution, catalogue it then lend it out to the general public. Your eBook library needs to do exactly the same thing and, although I will be the first to point out that there are other good options out there, I use Calibre to do it. Calibre is a freeware, open source software program that acts as an eBook organiser and reader. It is available for free download from the creator's website and, once installed, you are led to the heart of the system which, as user interfaces go, is pretty much self explanatory.

Firstly you add books to it. These can be of any one of a dozen different formats ranging from plain text (txt) through rtf , html and pdf, to a couple of the larger eBook platforms, such as the Mobipocket file formats, and what is fast becoming the defacto standard, ePub. Once they have been 'registered' and 'catalogued' on the system, they appear on the main screen as a list in the central screen with the "metadetails" shown in the right hand screen. When it is on the system there are a number of cool things you can do with your books but, to keep things simple, let's just look at the main purpose you are going to be putting this to - reading your books. It couldn't be simpler! Point and double-click on the entry on the listing or click the listing and then "view" (the magnifying glass) on the toolbar. This will open a viewer to suit whatever format the book is in.
What's the use of a library unless you can read the books though? Once a new eBook is imported into your library you can open up a viewer to read it no matter what format it was originally in. Your book also has a neat title page with a table of contents in a separate window on the left hand side of the screen which you can close down when it isn't needed. Regular users of Adobe Acrobat reader - the ubiquitous reader of the pdf format - might point out that it too has a window that acts like a contents with screenshots of the pages that can be opened down the left hand side of the screen. But can a pdf remember your spot and open there when you close your book up at the end of your session? Can you change the size of the font and still get word wrapping within your screen without navigating around what is in effect a "big picture". Can you set it to night reading mode, annotate the text, check a dictionary...?

Would I be generalising if I said that pdf is pretty but not flexible and eBooks are practical but not as pretty? What has been your experience?

Fan Produced Books? Oh! The humanity!

A fan book? Shock! Horror!

What did you just visualise? A hard back novel or a mass market paperback with your name on it, on a bookseller's shelf right next to Pocket Book's latest offering? Dream on buddy! Just to clear the air, I'm not talking about producing something for sale, that would be a clear breach of the copyright laws and as such I would encourage you to report such a thing to Paramount or Simon & Schuster. No, I'm talking about an author who would like a copy of their book to sit on their bookshelf at home, maybe a few copies to give away to friends and family, the local Trek fan club... I can hear the snorts of 'Vanity Publishing' springing to the lips of many to which I shrug and say, why not? Who amongst us is without ego? Where it has gained a justifiably questionable reputation - dare I say, bad press? - has been because in the past the only way that traditional printing was viable was in commercial quantities of at least a couple of hundred units per print run which were a large expense up-front sending many people broke.

Modern technology has spawned Print On Demand (POD) publishers who do exactly what the name implies: they will print one or any number of copies of a book on demand. They have no massive logistics of printing, shipping, storage and selling, because they are usually offered online, paid for with electronic funds transfer and delivered by mail. Unfortunately, although I see no substantial, ethical reason for not doing so, the current stance of most POD publishers such as Lulu is that they class all fan fiction irrespective of quantity as a breach of copyright and will not print them.

So what are your choices? I assume there are a number of printers, especially small local printers, who will see the reality of the situation that the world of Intellectual Properties will not crumble and The World As We Know It will not fall because of your fanfic and will print it for you. Whether you will be able to find one who can do one as a one-off job rather than a print run of 200, I'm not so sure.

Alternatively, you can publish it yourself. You can print it out in folio A4 / US Letter (ie printed in landscape and folded in half vertically) as a 12 page "booklet", sew them and bind them. Yes, I'm serious, it can be done by amateurs! It's not easy, probably on a par with skilled woodwork or needlework, but it can be done.

...or you could think outside the square.

For example, when is a book not a book? When, for that matter, is a film not a film? Although we call them fan films, they're not shot on celluloid like Ben Hur or Casablanca was nor, with a few notable exceptions, will you ever see them on the big screen of a cinema. Likewise audio dramas are really a subtly different thing from radio plays (I could wax elloquent on that subject).

You could, for example, publish them as an eBook.

What's missing from Fan Productions?

In the five years or so that I've been reporting on fan productions we've come a long way! Fan films have matured from the shakey beginnings that their producer's would have us forget to productions that in many ways rival their professional counterparts. Audio dramas have given a new lease of life to a form of media that had been relegated to a historical curiosity - the radio play. Animation perhaps more than any other form of media has amazed me with the way in which it has empowered those with the creativity and talent to produce some astonishingly good shows.

Look at where they've come from, where they are now and where they might end up, how has this happened? What it boils down to for me are two things: society and technology. Modern attitudes are swinging towards the "me generation" - what can *I* do or what can *I* get out of it - and this is being reflected in modern, mass media with the explosion of reality shows that we see on TV and the way that citizen reporting on blogs and Youtube is taking us to 'ground zero' of the worlds trouble spots. In this respect, it is technology that has become the liberator. New technology has made available to the average wage-earner of western society a range of tools that were the exclusive domain of the professional ten years ago.

The expense of the equipment involved for example was one of the things that held back amateur cinematography, freed by digital, high definition cameras now available at a fraction of the cost, a situation that is paralleled by lighting and sound recording equipment as well. In the case of animation, it was the sheer magnitude of the task involved in doing traditional, hand-drawn cels that balked amateurs. For them the revolution has come in the form of computer software packages that allow one person to create two and three dimensional images that before were the result of a production line of artists. Many of the computer generated special effects that before only Spielberg could afford can now be created by 'Everyman'. Parallel advances have been made in the spread of expertise and knowledge that was once only acquired by working one's way up through the appropriate branch of the entertainment industry.

However none of this would have had the same effect if amateur producers could not get their work seen or experienced by others. The cost of maintaining a TV or radio network is phenomenal, as is the infrastructure involved in movie theaters. Once again, it was technology that came to the rescue by the creation of a new distribution network, the internet, which has become the defacto distribution network that connects and binds us together as a culture and a society.

Fans are riding this wave of technology to new heights - fan films, fan audio dramas, fan animation - however there is one component of the mass media market that we have not assailed: fan publishing. Where there are fan film-makers there are fan films, where there are fan voice actors there are fan audio dramas but although there are probably an order of magnitude more fan authors...

Where are the fan books?