Now there’s this app, Subtext, that lets you read books and share your comments about them in real-time with other people reading the same book. Little speech bubbles in the margins pop up: you tap them, you get to read what other people are saying about a particular plot twist, or character death, or whatever.
In some cases, the author has gone through and made a bunch of those comments him or herself, and these read a little like a DVD commentary track.
I mention this because I’m one of those authors: Machine Man is one of their launch titles. So, if, you know, you feel I’ve been too secretive about the creative process behind Machine Man so far, now is your chance for some insight.
At first I thought you would have to turn those comments off when reading a Subtext book, at least the first time through, because otherwise that would be really distracting. But I have found that this is impossible. You know the comments are lurking there, and it’s too much to resist turning them back on when you’re wondering, “Does anyone else think this story just completely went off the rails?”
So that’s pretty cool. Not from an author’s perspective. From an author’s perspective, it’s horrible. I want you to sit there and read what I’ve damn well written for you. But as another example of users seizing control over their own entertainment experiences, it seems significant.
Movie news! I just changed the subject. That’s what happened there. Mark Heyman, the scriptwriter of Black Swan, who’s been busy working on what I have to say is a freaking fantastic Machine Man script, I know I’m not allowed to tell anyone, Mandalay, BUT IT IS AWESOME, has sold his “Facebook thriller” script XOXO, with Darren Aronofsky producing. So it’s all going pretty nicely in Heyman-land. Syrup is deep in post-production and I still haven’t seen it, not that I’m thinking about it every ten minutes or anything. And the leads are busy: Amber Heard is doing interviews for The Rum Diary, and Shiloh Fernandez is becoming an eco-terrorist.
I’m a little nervous about this, but here is the nerdiest thing I have ever done. You realize that bar is already pretty high. I have programmed web games. I have considered domain name availability before naming my offspring. But this is the first time I have publicly released a version control system history of a book.
I just lost you. I realize that. Unless you are some kind of freako super-geek, in which case, welcome to the tiny minority of the human race that may appreciate this. The rest of you: a revision control system is usually used for writing software, and tracking the changes you make. I used one of these for the Machine Man serial, since I was uploading a page per day, and it needed to be processed for sending out to people’s email inboxes and cell phones, and I lost you again, didn’t I? Okay.
The point is I have the entire edit history of Machine Man all the way back from notes. And you can browse to any particular page and see how it evolved from something to nothing.
Here is an example, using Version 1 of Page 18:
It’s just a note to myself about what this page might be about. By clicking the “→V2”, you move ahead to Version 2 of that page:
New words are green, deleted words are red. This page is hard to read because the software is making bad guesses about how the different versions fit together. In actuality, I simply deleted my note and wrote a first version.
Then I corrected a spelling mistake:
And continued tweaking in versions 4 through 9.
The final version is here. And if you have the book, you can follow along at home to the version that wound up in the novel:
I’m not sure what use this is to anybody, other than for exposing my writerly fumblings in an even more humiliating manner than I’ve already done. But it was POSSIBLE, so I have DONE IT.
To access the Source version of a page in the Machine Man serial, click the tiny, near-invisible nut on the top-right of any serial page. Or append “&v=1” to the URL, if you’re that nerdy. Which, if you’ve read this far, you surely are.
- Some people are incredibly nice and love the book and take the trouble to say so, which makes you feel like kissing their toes
- Some reviewers say you are smart and you think, Hey, yeah, I am smart, I’m REALLY GODDAMN SMART
- Some reviewers mistake your book for something else entirely and you have to remind yourself it’s not a good look for an author to post angry comments listing their CLEAR FACTUAL AND CONCEPTUAL ERRORS
- You are invited to speak at festivals and bookstores and on radio, which causes you to gradually re-learn atrophied social skills like talking
- Your time for writing shrinks and you start to panic because you’re not getting enough one-on-one time with your work-in-progress, which loves and needs you
- Some people you haven’t heard from in years remember you exist
- Some people take the time to email you how much you suck, which often seems to be a reaction not to the book or to you exactly but rather the fact that you are receiving attention, which infuriates them for reasons that are hard to know
- Some people give oddly insulting compliments, like, “Of your four terrible books, this is at least fairly readable,” and honestly seem to expect you will be pleased to hear it
- You notice things in the book you wish you had done differently
- You kind of want to know how it’s selling but kind of don’t
- Some people don’t seem to realize you have a new book out, and how is that possible, you’re spending all this goddamn time doing interviews and blogs and book trailers, have they seen that book trailer, HOW CAN THEY NOT KNOW
Basically, a strange time. And that’s even without a US book tour, which is usually a whole added level of surrealism for me. But I replaced it with the Skype tour, so I guess it balanced out. Actually, the Skype tour was far more successful than I expected. Or, more specifically, it contained far less crazy than I feared. I’m not saying you people are crazy. Not all of you. It was just that I was pretty sure that at some point I would find myself talking to a person who wanted me to join his underground resistance movement, and read his manuscript. But that didn’t happen. So thank you to everyone for being so nice and sane. The best part of book tours is getting to chat to readers—well, that and the hotel room service—so it was like taking just that part and condensing it down.
Tomorrow I’m off to the Brisbane Writers Festival, but next week, guess what? A clean calendar! I’m really excited about that. That means I can write.
Also: win an original manuscript. I wasn’t sure which to go with as the blog title. Which do you think is more alluring? It’s the manuscript, isn’t it? Well, it’s too late for that now. Stop going on about it.
So two new promotions today. PROMOTION #1: WIN A MACHINE MAN MANUSCRIPT! This is a mid-2010 working draft of the novel that I scribbled notes over. It’s 413 pages. I don’t know how I’m supposed to mail that. The postage will ruin me. Anyway, you can win that, and magnets and books, if you enter before August 9 and live in the US or Canada. Yes, this one is a North American promotion. Don’t look at me like that. I don’t control the global publishing industry.
PROMOTION #2: SKYPE WITH MAX! Since I’m not doing a book tour, I decided to Skype myself around. That sounds kind of dirty. But the idea is you get the joy of my virtual presence with none of the body odor. It’s win-win. Basically I’ll call you and you have ten minutes to ask questions or show me your cats or whatever you like. Well. Not whatever. Keep your clothes on. But you get the idea.
To qualify for this, you buy three books. I had to pick a number that was low enough to be reasonable, yet high enough to prevent me spending the rest of my life delivering this promotion. So I chose three.
For this you can live anywhere in the world. You see, when it’s up to me, I remember my friends in far-off corners of the world, like England. I remember you.
P.S. I haven’t received my magnets yet, but when I do I’ll give some of those away to people outside of North America, too.
Machine Man is out in Australia and New Zealand today, because of the time difference. We’re eight days and fourteen hours ahead of the US. I don’t know if you knew that. It’s because the Southern Hemisphere rotates slightly faster than the Northern Hemisphere. That’s why the seasons are different, too. Also, most of what you think is an accent is actually just the Doppler effect.
Anyway, the point is that residents of Australia and New Zealand should now be visiting bookstores and moving my book to more prominent positions. Bookstore owners say they hate that, but they’re just crotchety because of the whole collapsing industry thing. They’ll thank you when that eye-catching cover brings in more foot traffic.
Northern Hemispherians have to wait until next week. You know my Australian publisher did this specifically to annoy you. Not only that, but they’re running a promotion whereby antipodes can get a free e-copy with every print edition. I’m not sure how that helps anyone, come to think of it. I guess if you like the look and feel of print books but the convenience of digital, it’s good. Or if you want to test which medium you prefer by reading the exact same book once on each. If that describes you, details are craftily hidden on this page.
Machine Man the novel is out August 9, unless you live in one of those countries that hates me, like the UK. Seriously, UK. What have I ever done to you? Aside from those Bedford blogs. Those were totally justified. Bedford is horrible.
Anyway, the point is: look at me with this actual book! The publishers have started printing. A couple days ago I was asked whether I’d miss the sensation of holding a physical copy of my book, since I allegedly believe ebooks are destined to take over from print. And as much as I wanted to say no, because, hey, bring on the electrons, the answer was yes. I do find it incredibly rewarding to hold my book, made real. I mean made physical. Ebooks are real. I never said otherwise. But a thing, a touchable, material thing, does validate the book’s existence in a straightforward and undeniable way. When I dreamed of being a published writer, I was mostly imagining a shelf full of physical objects. Those objects may not be important, in the long run. They may be the medium and nothing more. But boy, they are something.
Some promotional stuff is brewing. First, if you’re in Australia, Scribe is doing a very cool thing whereby you can buy the print version and get a Booki.sh e-copy for free. See here under “ebook bundle”. If you’re not in Australia, and can get to San Diego for Comic-Con 2011, Vintage will be giving away Advanced Reader Copies* and more importantly AWESOME MAGNETS. Look at these things. You can mix and match human and artificial parts. You know you want that more than life itself. That isn’t just me.
If you can’t get to San Diego, you can win magnets and possibly something else via a competition I haven’t invented yet. The important thing is I promise there will be access to magnets. Stay tuned. And suggest some competition ideas. Because seriously, I need to think of something.
Finally: US book tour. There isn’t one. Or at least, not a physical one. This is mainly because flying an author thousands of miles to sell three dozen copies of a book is not very cost-effective. Especially when that author tends to order a lot of room service and make long international phone calls. But also because I have an idea for a virtual book tour, which is cheaper and appropriate for the novel and solves the problem of people complaining I’m visiting every city in the world except their one. Details to come on that, too. I just wanted to let you know early so you’re not hanging around postponing your vacation in case I come to Tallahassee that precise weekend. Go ahead. Book the flight. You deserve it.
(* Advanced Reader Copies are early versions given out to reviewers and bloggers and, for some reason, Comic-Con 2011 attendees. Sometimes these wind up on ebay and people like you wonder if they should buy them. I think they make neat collectibles, but they’re inferior to the final book in three ways: the text is uncorrected, meaning it contains typos and things I changed at the last minute, the cover and front/back matter is different, and the production quality of the book itself is lower. Also I don’t get paid for ARCs. So that’s four ways.)
Here are the covers in question. If you’re not seeing a graph, try this. If you are, and you enjoy playing with graphs, you can click site names in the legend to add and remove them. I mention that because it’s awesome fun.
- In all cases, Cover #5 (Victorian-era dude with enormous ‘stache) was most popular. This was a surprise because I’d thought it was just too weird. In retrospect, I was probably headed for that trap of trying to imagine what other people might like, which is always a sure path to something conservative and uninteresting. So this was a handy reminder to not do that. Many people responded very positively to the originality of this design and were turned off by the same-ness of some others.
- Cover #3 (Millions o’ Parts) was least popular. This was lucky, because it was the design that started this whole debate with my publisher, and if it turned out that people actually liked it best, I would have been an asshole. The votes also seemed to back up my thesis that it appealed more to arty types than geeks, with it being quite popular on tumblr but abhorred on Reddit (where there were actually more negative comments than positive ones).
- Covers #4 (Smoking Capacitor) and #6 (Smoking Processor), which were deliberately similar to the style of my previous covers in Jennifer Government and Company, were a lot more popular with people who knew that (i.e. people on maxbarry.com and my Facebook page).
- Reddit liked Cover #2 (the Robot) a great deal, practically as much as the ‘Stache. I suspect this is due to an affection for retro robots (something I share). A few people observed that it was less true to the story than #5, though.
- Cover #1 (Pixelated Guy) I think suffered from a general feeling that this kind of thing had been done before. It was seen as pleasant but not particularly arresting.
If you were wondering, covers #3 and #6 were designed by Vintage, cover #4 by me, and covers #1, #2, and #5 by up-and-coming design superstar Matt Roeser. I didn’t mention that earlier to avoid prejudicing votes.
Comment of the week, from G Lainagier:
In numerical order: Couplandesque cubicle farce, Rankinesque steampunk, Kathy Lette tries something new, Tom Clancy for the kids of today, what you wrote, what you might write but not really this.
I also enjoyed seeing Caleb’s battle against indecision, as he transitioned over the course of three comments and several hours from saying #6 was terrible to liking it the best.
I forgot to mention earlier that most of these covers were concept sketches, not finalized designs. With #5, for example, a few people criticized the machine legs, which were only supposed to be placeholders. I’m now working with Matt and the publisher to refine that. I promise you, those legs will be awesome. Also: the ‘stache stays.
Thank you again to everyone who helped out with this. You are the burning propulsive mass beneath my rocket boots.
* Nerd details: I assigned a weighting to expressed preferences: 3 points for most preferred, 2 points for any second preference, down to -2 for last preference, if one was mentioned. When people said they liked multiple things equally, I alternated entering them in the order listed or in reverse. To allow opinions on different sites to be compared, despite very different numbers of respondents (about 260 on maxbarry.com, 390 on Reddit plus a thousand-odd votes, 70 on tumblr, and 50 on Facebook), I scaled the results: the most popular choice is scored as 1,000 and other covers based on their relative popularity on that site. A cover exactly half as popular as the top choice, for example, on whichever site, has a column exactly half as tall. Note that this exaggerates a single person’s vote on Facebook and tumblr: the Reddit and maxbarry.com columns represent many more people’s opinions.
On Reddit, where users can endorse another person’s comment by upvoting it, I multiplied the score of each comment by the number of upvotes. But since users can upvote multiple comments, even comments saying the same thing, I took the square root of each result in order to minimize the exaggeration that would have otherwise occurred. (Without this, the more popular covers on Reddit appeared wildly more popular.) When highly upvoted comments expressed equal preferences for multiple covers, I assigned equal scores, rather than relying on the averaging nature of the alternating system mentioned earlier.
Something wonderful happened the other week: my editor asked what I thought about a proposed Machine Man cover. To appreciate how wonderful this is, you need to understand the usual process of publisher-author cover consultation. It goes like this:
- Publisher develops cover in secret laboratory guarded by Dobermans
- Publisher emails author a JPEG, accompanied by text emphasizing how much everyone they’ve shown this image to loves it and believes it to be a surefire winner
- Publisher puts image on the cover
You notice there are no steps where the author does anything. I have tried to insert that step in the past, first with Syrup and then Company, but without much success. (To be fair, I was wrong about Company. That is a great cover. I was right about Syrup, though.)
This time, however, my editor at Vintage was ready for discussion. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to ask in case that accidentally provoked him into regaining his senses. But I made a few suggestions, even mocked up prototypes of my own, and Vintage responded with even more images.
Then I became really arrogant and demanding. It was around this point I realized why publishers don’t involve authors in cover discussions. Because I still wasn’t really in love with any of the cover ideas we had. And the cover is so important. Not just because it helps sales (although there is that): it also colors the story within. It’s the first thing you see and it stays with you as you turn the pages.
So next we brought on board indy designer Matt Roeser. This guy is incredibly talented and has somehow not been hired by anyone yet: this is potentially his first gig. Go look at his website; it’s beautiful. Anyway, once Matt had done his thing, we had six potential covers. Since I was already being a prima donna, I said, “I should post this online and ask people what they think.” And Vintage agreed! Like I say, it’s crazy. So here we are. Behold!
Now we reach the part where you tell me which you like. There’s a comment link right there. I also posted to Reddit, because that’s where I drew a lot of inspiration for my main character’s personality. I’m not saying the site is full of misunderstood technology-obsessed geeks who would chop off their own hands if they could replace them with something WiFi-enabled. I’m just saying it was very helpful creatively. Also, I thought it was important to get opinions from people who don’t already like me. You’re wonderful people, you who visit me here. But you’re one hell of a sampling bias.
Please let me know what you think! Any and all feedback is much appreciated. And thank you to Vintage for being cool enough to let me do this. INSANELY COOL, if you know what I mean. I’m emphasizing INSANE. Oh. You got that? Okay.
Look at me! I’m clinging to life here. I’ve been so sick I couldn’t even reach the razor. That was for the first few days. Then I started to like it. I have about twelve hours of this Man Grizzly look left before Jen realizes it’s voluntary.
Copyedits off to Vintage today. I pity the fool who has to typeset this mess. I went nuts. And I don’t even know what most copyediting symbols mean. I had to guess.
It’s 2011 and publishers still print out manuscripts, manually scribble on them, and type the whole thing in again.