Interview with Joel Naoum of Critical Mass

 Version 2Today, I’m very pleased to be bringing readers an interview with Joel Naoum. Joel is a Sydney-based book publisher, editor and consultant. He currently runs Critical Mass, a consultancy for authors and publishers, and previously ran Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-first imprint Momentum. In 2011 he completed the Unwin Fellowship researching digital publishing experimentation in the United Kingdom.
I met Joel when he was at Momentum and published two adult novels of mine, the Trinity duology. It was a really fantastic experience to work with Joel and the rest of the Momentum team, and it was with great regret that I heard last year about the closure of Momentum as a stand-alone imprint, and the subsequent departure of Joel and his team. So it’s been excellent to catch up with him and chat about his very interesting new business, Critical Mass.
First of all, Joel, congratulations on launching Critical Mass! Can you tell readers about how you came up with the idea for the business, and what you see as its main objective?
Well, the name is a bit of a joke from my previous job at Momentum. We used to bend over backwards to avoid using the word “momentum” in conversation (which used to come up quite a bit in a fast-moving digital publishing imprint). One of the phrases we used to use was “building critical mass”. 
 
In a lot of ways Critical Mass is a logical follow-up to Momentum. When we conceived of Momentum six years ago we were trying to compete as a traditional publisher with the growing self-publishing trend. When digital sales began to plateau for traditional publishers, however, and I knew I was going to be leaving Momentum, I thought “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Self-publishing is still growing at a healthy rate, and authors have access to a massive range of services to help them. One thing I felt was missing, though, was the personal touch of a publisher or agent. Someone who can advise an author strategically, for their own benefit, about what steps to take next – whether you’re just starting out or you’re an established author. So I thought I could use the skills I’ve built up over the years to become a publisher-for-hire.
What have been the challenges and discoveries in setting up such a unique enterprise? 
It’s been difficult to find a way of framing the services I offer and pointing out the value in them. If an author has never been published before (or represented by a good agent) then they likely don’t know the advantages. For a lot of indie authors, publishers are the enemy – someone who has stopped them from publishing; not someone who helps them make better decisions or finds them better services to improve the quality of their publishing. It’s also been challenging to wear two hats – Critical Mass is a consultancy both for authors and for publishers, so finding a way to do both without compromising either service is a juggling act.
 How do you think your experience as founding director of Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint, Momentum, as well as the rest of your experience in the publishing has influenced and informed the direction and focus of Critical Mass?
I think Momentum in particular helped me make a transition from the slow-moving but high-quality world of traditional publishing to the lightning fast world of indie publishing. I understand what compromises need to take place to self-publish, but I also understand where not to cut corners in order to not compromise the book.
Critical Mass is aimed at three groups: authors, publishers, and content producers. With authors, you are offering a range of services to improve and streamline a self-publishing experience, which can be quite an undertaking for people attempting it alone. Can you explain the kinds of things you can do for authors going down the indie publishing route? In your opinion, when is self-publication a viable option for authors?
My first port of call is always to have a chat to authors who aren’t sure what they want to do to see if the type of project they’re working on suits self-publishing, or if they should attempt to pitch to a traditional publisher. If they’re better off attempting traditional publishing, I can help them polish their work and their pitch. If the project they’re working on suits self-publishing then I can help them decide on a publishing strategy, and then connect them to the various freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, marketers and other services to help them publish their book.
The biggest indicators for me that an author should self-publish is that they’re writing something that suits the market (books in series, genre fiction), they’re prolific (writing a book or two a year at least), they’re self-motivated and that they’re willing to experiment.
You are offering publishers a focus on technology solutions and possibilities for their business. Can you describe what’s involved? 
There are a lot of advantages to introducing digital technologies to all aspects of a publishing workflow that a lot of publishers, particularly the smaller ones, haven’t yet considered. End-to-end digital workflows save money and time, and automate work as much as possible so that the human beings inside an organisation can make intelligent decisions where needed instead of wasting their time on repetitive tasks that don’t sell more books or make them any better.
Moving to content producers, such as bloggers, you are looking at an earlier stage of writing than is implied in the services you offer to authors, with advice, for instance, on whether their content might be suitable to produce as a book. What kinds of things would you be looking at, in such content?
“Content producer” was a difficult category to come up with, and I’m still not 100% happy with the phrase. Basically I’m talking about businesses or individuals who have content, but they’re not sure if it’s a book and if so what they could do with it. This includes anyone from advertising agencies looking into book publishing for their brands, or an individual blogger who has built a platform but isn’t sure whether their content would suit book publishing. Given the breadth of what “content” is, it’s hard to make general observations, but the idea is that I’ve spent most of my career making commercial decisions about whether digital content is a book or not, and I figure other businesses and individuals might find that experience useful.
What are your views on the publishing industry, both nationally and globally? What do you see as the trends? 
 Publishing of all stripes is in a pretty good place right now. Traditional publishers are making money from both print books and digital, all the while authors have more access than ever before to top notch services and platforms to get their books out there – whether they go with a traditional publisher or do their own thing. 
 
I think things seem fairly stable right now, but the next five to ten years will likely see some more big shifts in the way audiences consume books, especially as the core audience for print books begins to age, and the people who grew up with iPads start to have kids of their own. I suspect the biggest areas for disruption are the health and wellness / lifestyle books and children’s books. I think this likely something to look for in the medium to long term, though, not in the next couple of years.
 
As always it’s also worth considering Amazon. They’re looking into launching more bricks and mortar bookstores in the US, and their in-house publishing imprints are becoming ever more powerful. If this end-to-end strategy pays big dividends you could see an even bigger juggernaut in the industry, which will likely cause more of the big traditional publishers to merge together in order to stay competitive.
Visit Critical Mass here.
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A new way of writing: an interview with Simon Higgins

Simon Higgins Web Friendly Biog PicToday I am interviewing author Simon Higgins about his extraordinary new creation, DarkSpear, which features an intriguing way of writing combining several art and media forms.

Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author of books for young adults. Originally a police officer, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. He has 13 novels published so far, often combining crime, speculative fiction and historical adventure. His 2008 novel, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, was an Australian bestseller and was also published in the United States, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently lives in China where he works in several creative fields.

Simon, this exciting new release of yours, DarkSpear, is what you have called a ‘visual novel’ . Can you explain what that means?

Sure, Sophie. Visual Novels (VNs) are something quite fresh and exciting for many in the Western world! I keep summing them up for people in these terms: they’re books you play, games you read, a hybrid of textual novel and interactive computer game.

They evolved originally in Japan, spread throughout East Asia, and are now gaining many appreciators in both Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But not enough yet, I say.  🙂  They have so much to offer!

VNs are, at the core, literary, but like computer games, they offer new ways to enjoy fiction by thatching in extra mediums to intensify the reader/player’s immersive experience. So although text heavy, they also employ elements like a short opening film, sumptuous backgrounds, detailed images of the characters, sophisticated music, and even sound effects, to intensify story impact.

They are also an interactive storytelling medium, kind of the cyber-era descendant of those delightful old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books and games from the 80s. This is what you could call their gaming side. A player must decide what the protagonist will do at certain points, choosing from two or three options that suddenly confront them.

Different choices lead to different storylines, which in VN jargon are called routes or paths. Should you pick one that eventually ends in some decidedly nasty fate, it’s okay…because you also choose ‘save points’ along the way, which you can return to anytime using the menu. Thus, having noted where you made that critical wrong turn, you’re able to just dive back into the story world again, land close to that point, and take a different path!

Depending on exactly how the VN has been written, you may, or may not, on behalf of the protagonist, get to cheat what we could call ‘the hero’s ultimate fate’, but with each route you try, the journey will certainly change. It’s a pity real life doesn’t offer such options sometimes, heh? 🙂

How did you come up with the concept, and why? How long was it in the making?

 I wish I could say I’d invented the concept, but alas, it was more a case of stumbling on it while living and working in creative circles in China, and immediately thinking, ‘Wow! So many imaginative people I know in the West have probably never heard of this medium, but would absolutely love it!’

Quickly thereafter it also occurred to me that this could be a powerful rescue tool for all those parents and teachers who bemoan having a clever, curious teenager in their lives who just-won’t-read while computer games stalk the face of the earth and compete with books for their brain space.DarkSpear1

Here, I thought, is a bridge between the two worlds, one immersive and engaging enough for anyone to want to cross it, at least once. Now I should warn that not all VNs I’ve seen are what you might call wholesome, just as can be said for books. But many are, some are utterly delightful, and a few are even pure art.

I also (as I sometimes formally testified in court, way back in the police force) ‘formed a certain suspicion on good grounds’. A suspicion that once writers in the West, be they self-published, emerging or established authors, read a VN with good storylines and dialogue and gripping ideas, a cry would go up that I’d be able to hear all the way from China. A cry of ‘I want one too!’

Once I’d developed that feeling, and of course, found the right creative partners, the process, from the birth of the dream to my VN’S first ‘draft’ in playable form, took about four or five months. That included writing the tale’s routes, and programming.

DarkSpear is a multi-arts, multi-media project. Who did you collaborate with, and how did the process go? What challenges did you face?

 I teamed up with Lava Entertainment, an ambitious, intensely creative young company based here in Guilin, China, who had set up shop, as fate would have it, just walking distance from my own office at Crane Animation.

That’s where I write for Gemini Fables, an animated TV show, coach the in-house writing team, fine-tune crucial subtitles, and get to participate -to various degrees- in a wide variety of awesome projects. I get to travel regularly with my work, and sometimes have the joy of meeting Chinese directors, screen writers, TV celebs and actors – so many lovely and stimulating people.

I’m Crane Animation’s chief creative consultant and my official designation, based on my track record in the West, is Foreign Expert. Kind of chuffed about that, seeing as the first one ever was Marco Polo. 🙂 Always nice to feel you’re following in a legendary author’s footsteps, though happily, unlike Marco, nobody ever points crossbows at me when I move between provinces for business travel. 🙂

My regular work can include tasks related to animation, filmmaking, educational and safety initiative creation, commercial branding character design, and all sorts of projects that harness story and imagination to help build international friendship ties between China and other parts of the world, including Australia and France.

But the Visual Novel project with Lava was aside from all that, out of my comfort zone you could almost say, because it required me to quickly get to know a brilliant young team of artists, programmers and business people who spoke, in some cases, minimal or no English. That was naturally an ongoing challenge as my Mandarin is very basic.

However, we all persevered, and as we worked on the project, they coached me in the technical side of putting together a VN, which at the outset, involved me, the author, not only writing the story but creating at least three primary variations to its overall arc and then designing a series of sub-deviations within each major ‘route’.

Along the way, I had to chart out where key moments would turn into decision-points for the reader/player, and depending on their choices, sweep them seamlessly into other paths, and possibly, back out again to the original route, later. At first, it was mind-bending. 🙂 I remember hunching over my notebook, in genuine zombie mode, after working on it intensively one weekend, my wife devotedly shovelling noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, murmuring, ‘You can keep working, but you gotta eat.’

I also had to conceive and storyboard all the major background art, and work with the Lava team on character design, choices of music, and desirable sound effects for heightening the drama at certain points. And, towards the end of the whole process, I had to script, storyboard and direct the promotional and opening-of-game short films.

So the mission took in elements of novel then script writing, computer game design, film production and directing. I totally loved it, such an intense creative stretch! 🙂 My wife Jen, who won her creative master’s degree at RMIT in Melbourne, gave me many fabulous ideas and edited the final short films, even organising a Beijing composer to create the videos’ original music while actually watching the footage in real time.

One interesting challenge was the area of writer’s vision v. artist’s vision, something I’m sure is familiar territory to anyone who’s ever worked collaboratively on a picture book or illustrated anthology. Two different styles of creative mind, coming at the same territory from two different frames of reference, well, it can easily become a Batman V Superman-level epic clash. So yes, I did end up negotiating, at times, with the team’s artists over story v. imagery.

Fortunately, Chinese artists, in my experience, are the absolute opposite of volatile. We did have the odd lengthy chat about why, in certain instances, it really was necessary to stick to what my text described, as opposed to the artist’s view that a more free-form interpretation of that passage ‘could look so beautiful.’

But there was a great spirit of teamwork prevailing overall, and in the end, I did- happily- make some concessions, including changing certain details in the story to fit the envisioned art. I just had to. So many of their random ideas were just great! And I really love their distinctive work. Kai, the chief artist, for instance, somehow manages to bring digital and classical art style elements together in a really absorbing way.

DarkSpear2 DarkSpear is set in a dystopian future, and centred around a feisty, talented heroine, Kitty Sato, who is drawn into a dangerous secret world. How did you create the character of Kitty, and research the interesting phenomenon of psi-gamma(ESP) ability?

In some ways, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sato was all about coming full circle for me.

1998 saw my first novel, Doctor Id, hit the shelves courtesy of Random House, and its star was young Jade Draper, a policeman’s daughter and reluctant psychic, misguidedly drawn into a hazardous opportunity to bring down a serial killer, and, fittingly for one of my characters, doing so with the aid of her Asian best friend and some-time love interest, Wing Tran.

The story’s murderer used the internet, which in 98 was wild and ‘un-policed’ compared to this century, to select and stalk his victims. I’ve been told -and I don’t know if it’s true- that I was one of the first authors to employ the whole ‘killer harnesses the net’ device in a crime novel. It did seem to surprise reviewers.

Whatever the case, that ‘X-factor’ certainly gave the book, a young adult tome, a topical edge that kick-started my career and garnered a Notable listing from the Children’s Book Council of Australia -no mean feat I think, given its gritty elements, including visceral nightmares and strangulations with superhuman strength.

Flash forward to a different century. 🙂 Late 2015, me contemplating my 13th novel. This time, though I again wanted to write about a tough young woman with precognitive abilities, I felt that this time round, she should be of mixed racial heritage (Jade and Wing combined, or perhaps a parallel to their potential child) and in no way reluctant to delve into her latent though unmanageable powers. I decided that this time, rather than be up against a killer, my heroine should be up against THE killers…in some timely but ultimate sense. And who would they turn out to be? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book, AND make some sound choices, to help Kitty find that out. 🙂

Once I’d come up with Kitty’s profile, I knew that, in a world now more savvy and cynical than the one I was first published in, this new young psychic Miss would need a credible backbone for her paranormal abilities, so I hit the books and the net (while feeling very safe from the serial killer I long ago created, thanks to the Great Firewall of China) and did lots of research…

It is just plain fascinating to discover how long and hard humans, educated, science-based, sceptical ones included, have relentlessly pursued what is in essence a romantic idea. ‘I can foretell future events; I can sense what’s in your pocket; on the back of that card in your hand; in the depths of your heart.’ Really?

Never, it seems, in the lab, under the scrutiny of objective, careful observers using reliable, untampered-with equipment. So says history, lots of it. Of course, part of the mythos of special powers is that real psychics are indeed among us, but being the real deal, will always refuse to be tested, even though they’d pass with flying colours.

As an amateur sociologist, anthropologist and self-resigned poster child for OCE syndrome (Obsessive Compulsive Exploration) I found this area of study utterly riveting, and dived into it fanatically while developing Kitty Sato and her world.

And while reading around the subject, I relentlessly beset my poor wife with sudden, random ‘Hey! Did you know…?’ outbursts. To her great credit, even when my excited rants had reached the double numbers, she still responded with patient smiles as opposed to kung fu. 🙂

So I got to know a world so interesting to work with, it became the reason DarkSpear is subtitled The Prologue. Yes. Good news. Lava Entertainment and I are planning at least one, possibly two more VNs in this series.

There is another fascinating aspect to DarkSpear too, in which a player’s own psi-gamma levels are actually evaluated during it. Can you tell us more about that?

dark spear 3Me being me, I was, as the project unfolded, once again hoping to come up with some ‘X-factor’ element that would really enhance the VN’s immersive qualities… 🙂

Once I knew that one of the major themes in my story would be Kitty’s psychic powers and how they might be both detected and scientifically demonstrated, I did my research then laid quite a challenge on the brilliant young minds I was working with.

Why? Because the Lava crew had said to me early on, during an initial brainstorming session, ‘Please suggest some sort of appropriate puzzle that could be included in the VN. Sort of a game within a game, for added interest and value for our customers.’

There were some very interesting expressions around the table when, in a later meeting, I explained Zener Card experiments at Duke and Princeton universities, as well as under the auspices of the CIA, in the latter’s case, as part of their hunt for real psychics to recruit as spies -all of this, now well-documented history.

The eyebrows really went up when I asked Jie Deng, CEO of Lava, if he thought he could design a real, scientifically-credible ‘Zener test engine’ and embed it in the VN. Well, he burned the midnight oil and went at the challenge like a trooper, employing skills he’d learned studying gaming science in, of all places, Birmingham, England, where he also developed his great -and now frustrated- love of ‘real’ fish and chips.

Jie’s subsequent success was to become that longed-for ‘X-factor’ component, DarkSpear’s utterly unique feature that sets it aside from all other VNs! Yes, if you are that rare, rumoured to exist individual with latent psi-gamma capacity (parapsychology-speak for real ESP) this humble Visual Novel can scientifically prove it, and by way of screen shots, help you document it. But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending a triumphant email – with supporting attachments – to the CIA. 🙂

How would you summarise the main features or benefits your Visual Novel offers readers and/or game players?

 Firstly, it’s a true read but with something more added: sensory immersion. Music that alters with the story, striking visuals that shift and change, sparingly (and strategically) used sound effects. But not everything is shown or done for you…so imagination, visualisation, and engagement on a thought level remains a major factor.

dark spear 4Secondly, while predominantly a book, it’s one you run on your phone or tablet for convenience, and also part-computer game, hence genuinely interactive. You help steer the story, and that’s exciting and unpredictable. You can ‘live it’ more than once, each journey as unique as the choices you make, but not too much is laid on you. The interactive aspect is not relentless, so you can still lose yourself in the tale.

Thirdly, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. It has the potential to lure some, who just aren’t, in their own estimation, ‘reading types’ into an experience that may expand their habits to their lasting benefit. Put it on a young hard-core gamer’s Android, iPhone or iPad, and if they don’t delete the new ‘oddball’ game, they just may bring it inside the city walls of their personal culture, where, come nightfall, out will tumble the hidden warriors of readership. At least I pray as much, to all the gods, old and new. 🙂

Thanks so much for the interview, Sophie! As you know, I love YOUR work. 🙂 And by way of epilogue, I should probably also mention that anyone visiting the Official DarkSpear Page on my website, can download their own free 13 piece set of original artwork used in the VN. Just go to http://simonhiggins.net/darkspear-visual-novel/

 

 

 

 

Author site: www.sophiemasson.org

Connecting with readers: an interview with Patrick Lenton of Town Crier Consultancy

Photo of Patrick Lenton by Daniel Boud

Photo of Patrick Lenton by Daniel Boud

Recently, author and digital and social media marketing specialist Patrick Lenton launched his brand-new business: Town Crier Consultancy. Town Crier is a social media and digital marketing consultancy for authors, teaching the skills authors need to create an online platform and sell their books. Patrick’s got the runs on the boards for his new business, having recently worked for Momentum–where I first met him–and several other major publishers. As a Momentum author new to the world of digital-first publications, I found Patrick wonderful to work with: both savvy and sensitive, flexible and focussed. And so, learning of his new enterprise, and intrigued to find out more, I asked him a few questions.

Congratulations on the launch of your new business, Patrick–what a great idea Town Crier Consultancy is! How did it start? Tell us about the development of the concept.
 
Thank you so much, Sophie. The idea was a bit of a slow burn, generated from conversations with authors who seemed to have a lot of misconceptions about marketing their books. There seemed to be a lot of fatalism – leaving the success of the book completely up to chance or the attention of the book gods, or believing that promotion involved more time or effort or skills than anyone possessed. There were also a lot of authors spending money on expensive one-off promotions and advertising that I knew from experience didn’t really do anything. I felt like lots of authors would jump at the chance to learn the skills they need to market efficiently, and decided to go ahead with the idea and create Town Crier!
You are both an author and a social media/digital marketing specialist. How do you combine these different strands?
 
It’s actually fairly separate skills for me right now – as an author I have a collection of literary/comedy short stories, which is a genre that is fairly immune to most digital marketing. However I think being an author myself means I have a lot of empathy and understanding for other authors. Unlike a lot of generic social media strategists, I’m fully aware that an author’s main job is writing, and all my town crier final logos small-01strategies and campaigns try to reflect that.
 

Before starting Town Crier, you worked for some time at Momentum, the very innovative digital-first arm of Pan Macmillan. What kinds of things did you learn from your time there?

Momentum believed in growing the author, rather than just marketing a book, which can be a very different strategy to a lot of publishing houses. That meant that we invested the time to teach an author skills and grow them as a cohesive brand (sorry for the marketing talk, it’s not great to be referred to as a brand). This was the biggest lesson I learnt, and one that helped created my view for Town Crier. It was also great to have the freedom to test out different strategies, and see how well they worked.

Your services are suitable both for self-published authors and for more ‘traditionally’ published authors looking to expand their digital and social media horizons. What kinds of things do you think each group of authors might be looking for?

 
All social media and digital marketing is about using online spaces to connect with readers! It’s an exciting time to be an author, because more readers than ever are online, and able to interact with authors and find more books that they want. Social media and online communities are basically digital word-of-mouth machines. Self-published authors are looking to sell to them directly, whereas traditionally published authors aren’t so dependent on that, and instead use the space to promote buzz and excitement about their books, so people can go and purchase them from bookstores.

What’s your number one tip for effective use of social media and digital marketing by authors?

Be genuine! The last thing ANYBODY wants is to engage with a Twitter or Facebook account that’s just an endless stream of ads and promotions. We’re very good at shutting advertising out, and even if it’s the best book in the world, we’ll probably ignore it if it feels like an infomercial is trying to sell it. Create your community by being engaged, genuine and interesting.