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!