Self-publishing and return on investment

Readers here might know that I make most of my living these days as a freelance editor, and that I’ve recently been doing a lot of work for self-publishing authors.

One of my clients asked me how he’s going to make his money back, in about as straightforward a way as you ever could, so last week I did what novelists do and wrote him a 4,500-word letter. The best bits of that email, cleaned up a little, are now on my editing website, hourigan.co. It’s an important piece for those considering self-publishing, and you can

read it here….

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To a writer facing personal troubles

I do a lot of writing. If you read this blog, you might have read a few hundred thousand pages of it in my books—what you might not know is that like a lot of writers in history, I also write a huge amount of letters, sometimes tens of thousands of words a month. Perhaps I should channel this elsewhere!

It strikes me today that many of these might be worth sharing. While my correspondents’ side is, of course, private, many of the letters that I write are largely about my own experience, and worth publishing for the benefit or interest of others.

Today’s letter is to a fellow writer who recently told me that his project is being stymied by financial and relationship difficulties, which I can relate to.


Hi, —

Thanks for writing.

I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. There’s not much you can do in the way of saying things to make someone feel better at times like these, but here are two inspirational comic strips from Zen Pencils that I thought of when it comes to writers in difficulty:

I actually finished my first novel around the time that an ex-girlfriend who I had lived with left me for a mutual friend. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was glad to have my writing to devote myself to at the time—it was a good outlet for my emotions and having something else to focus on helped. That said, I could hardly sleep for about six weeks, in spite of what I thought was good mental resilience. Sometimes only time heals such things.

As for talk of failure—if you’ll permit me some of my own thoughts, I wouldn’t see it as something to be afraid of, exactly. There’s far worse—despair, and giving up. While one is still getting back on one’s feet and fighting, there is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. I was reminded here of a passage from Chogyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala, which I read from at a book co-op night for writers in Melbourne some time ago. You might like it.

There may be something inspiring for you there as a writer, in the sense that communicating the difficulties we’ve been through is part of our work.

To end on a hopeful note, in January this year I finished off a short book project for an author, that included editing and a website, and she’s had an excellent sales result so far, selling about AUD 1,200 in books to her contacts before the month is even over, and having already made back more than half the money she invested in the project. I’m really thrilled for her, and I wanted to let you know about the success story.

I hope things feel a little brighter for you soon. In the meantime, I guess the last thing I can offer you is just to say hang in there and keep writing—there is always some kind of salvation in it.

Good luck. Write to me any time you like.

—Ben

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Playing Rogue Legacy

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Since I’ve been living in Thailand, I’m away from my television and my consoles, so the only way I can play videogames (a longtime hobby of mine—I even did my honors thesis and an abandoned PhD on Japanese RPGs) is on my Android mobile, my iPad, or my Mac.

I’ve slowly grown more enamored with Steam, so much so that I announced yesterday it’s now my go-to point for games. I especially like knowing that if I change computing platforms at some point in the future, I’ll still have access to my purchases—which I can’t say about games I’ve bought from the Mac App Store.

Once I’d let everyone know I was on Steam these days, my friend Felix asked me what I thought of Rogue Legacy—which I’d never heard of. That’s now rectified.

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The art may remind you of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

Rogue Legacy takes inspiration from ancient text-mode RPG Rogue, which gave players an overhead view of their character’s progress through randomly-generated dungeons made of text characters. Rogue’s most famous recent descendent is the Diablo series, which reproduces its formula of random levels, loot drops, and simple, hack-and-slash gameplay.

Like Diablo, Rogue Legacy spices up the RPG formula with action elements. I’ve always liked the action-RPG idea, promising as it does to replace what can be rather boring turn-based battles with challenges to the player’s dexterity. It makes things more dynamic and fun—I think of how enamored I was as a child with Legend of Zelda II in comparison with the SSI Dungeons & Dragons games.

It also mixes the Rogue formula with a dose of retro, sprite-based design, and humor from its central conceit, which is that on death, one’s hero is succeeded by a descendant—likely afflicted with a hereditary disease. These diseases range from gigantism to IBS and colorblindness, and add different visual or gameplay features to each session—again, randomly. The character designs are also amusing, reminiscent (as I’ve read elsewhere) of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.

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For a roguelike, Rogue Legacy includes a surprising amount of setpiece content, including bosses and this door near the castle entrance.

So—do I love it? It’s a qualified yes—with the main caveat being that I’m wary of how much of my time playing it could take up. After a few hours of play, I’ve settled into a groove with it where I’m always keen for just one more go.

But it took a while to arrive here. Now, I’ve accumulated enough stat and class upgrades by adding to my manor, and gathered enough extra equipment, that I’m starting to feel a sense of power and the ability to move freely throughout Castle Hamson, and even to make it some small way into the more threatening forest, tower, and dungeon areas that surround it. The first couple of hours, though, are frustrating: a low-level character with no upgrades will die quickly, often before collecting enough loot to buy anything that will make it possible to get further into the castle on the next try.

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Die and you have to select a new hero—but they’ll start with their Daddy’s money.

The beginning player must rely on getting favorable castle layouts on a few playthroughs, that put chests full of money within easy reach, before they can break this cycle and reach a point where they can upgrade their manor or equipment after most deaths—bringing on that “one more go” feeling.

Though the initial frustration is a slight challenge to get past, it’s arguably worth it to make later upgrades seem more impressive and satisfying. Rogue Legacy makes you work to get to the point where the game is genuinely fun and engaging, and once you do—you’ll feel it was worth the effort.

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(iA) Writer Pro for Mac (review)

Just before Christmas I was surprised by the release of Writer Pro, an update to Information Architects’ feted distraction-free Markdown writing app iA Writer, which was for a long time part of my writing workflow. Since then I’d mainly moved on to more feature-full apps, among them the newish Ulysses 3 and coder favorite Sublime Text, but the promise of a pro update to iA Writer had me intrigued and I did eventually buy Writer Pro to try it out.

Hype and disappointment

Much as I want to keep you in suspense, and to be generous to Information Architects, whose work and writing I have often loved, it’s hard to hold this back: Writer Pro is catastrophically disappointing. I wanted to love this app. But I don’t.

In fact, my disillusionment with Writer Pro began well before I’d paid its hefty $20.99 price on the App Store. The promotional videos for the app are so self-important as to be ridiculous. Had I not been sitting in the living room with my parents at the time, in the lead-up to Christmas, I would have laughed out loud. The video seems modelled on the Apple promos for new iStuff, where Jony Ive and others talk with gravitas about the design process leading up to the new product. The video for iA Writer Pro ramps it up a notch, overlaying it all with an anxiety-inducing piano soundtrack that evokes the sound of a clacking typewriter.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily laugh at the gravitas. I’m typically excited about what Ive has to announce for Apple, though announcements for recent iPhones have given me a chuckle at times. The iPhone 5 is taller? Really? That’s your response to the vastly more usable 4–5 in form factor adopted by the most high-profile Android phones?

It was the paucity of features I thought I’d find genuinely useful in this update, combined with the deadly earnest expression of the developers’ belief that iA Writer Pro is revolutionary, that gave rise to laughter. iA Writer Pro:

  • it adds a (hideable) sidebar that breaks its predecessor’s ultraminimalism,
  • divides writing into a four-phase process,
  • three of which have their own unique font
  • and adds an unusual “syntax” mode that highlights nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on.

It was two days, as a result, before I decided that there had to be more to iA Writer Pro than that, and paid the $20.99 for the Mac version.

The sidebar

Writer Pro’s most obvious new feature is the addition of a sidebar that controls major functions for writing in Markdown.

This sidebar has four sections:

  • Workflow: a horizontal slider that controls movement between iA Writer Pro’s four phases
  • Structure: radio buttons for selecting heading levels 1 through 6, body text, and bulleted and numbered lists
  • Syntax (Control): a vertical slider that allows highlighting sentences, adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.
  • Statistics: a display for reading time, and counts of characters, words, and sentences (in the document or the selection)

Most of these functions are also available through keyboard shortcuts if the sidebar is off, which is welcome.

The workflow slider is essential to iA Writer’s flawed general premise, but can hardly be viewed as a positive addition.

The structure buttons, on the other hand, will help newcomers to Markdown discover how to add structure to their documents while they learn the markup. iA Writer has long been one of my first recommendations for Markdown newbies, and if anything, the sidebar in Writer Pro improves on its suitability for these users. Yet after a period of time, the buttons become redundant: why move your cursor to click a button for Heading 1 when you could type “#”?

Syntax Control, the most hyped feature of Writer Pro in the promo videos, is also the strangest. Writers fond of the advice that one should avoid adverbs (and sometimes even adjectives) if possible may find the highlighter useful to expunge these superfluities from their work.

I admit that I actually did use Syntax Control while editing this review, and found the adverb highlighter particularly useful, even if it sometimes get things wrong (highlighter, for instance, is definitely not an adverb, but Writer Pro thinks it is). I may grow to think more highly of Syntax Control than I do.

Yet overall, to a native English speaker the focus on parts of speech in Syntax Control seems counterintuitive. Just why would I need to see all the verbs in my document highlighted? The development team’s answer to this is that with Syntax Control you can scan your work for repetition, as though this were the chief evil in writing.

Syntax Control looks to me like a solution to a nonexistent problem, and that this central feature in the new app is relatively weak is one of the clearest indications that the app as a whole is inadequate as a step forward, particularly at its price point.

Finally, the statistics panel is an act of outright vandalism. It’s now the only way to get those counts for words, characters, and so on. While that might seem okay, you may well cry when you realize that if you turn the sidebar off to get back to the original iA Writer’s minimal presentation, the counts no longer appear at the bottom of the window or screen when you move the mouse. If you want the counts, you can clutter your screen with the whole sidebar … or you get nothing.

Four phases, three fonts

iA Writer divides the writing process into four phases:

  • note
  • write
  • edit
  • read

Note, write, and edit have their own fonts, while read uses the sans-serif font already introduced in edit mode.

All the fonts are designed by Bold Monday: write mode uses the Nitti font familar from iA Writer, while note mode uses a proportional sans-serif and edit and read uses a proportional serif.

There seems little difference between the four modes except that the font is different for three of them, and the cursor colour changes. The only difference between read and edit modes appears to be that read mode takes the cursor away and grays out the other sidebar controls.

Another review of Writer Pro points out that if you are saving your documents in iCloud, it will also change the folder that the document is in. Comments on iA’s support forum demonstrate that though there is a certain invisible depth to these modes in the way they handle files on iCloud, users (including myself) can’t easily understand how it works or exactly what it is doing and why.

For many these file-management features will be an an annoyance or an irrelevancy, particularly if they like to edit their Markdown files in multiple applications and so avoid iCloud, as I do.

Occasionally you would hear around the internet requests to be able to change the font in iA Writer, and finally you can do it! Writer Pro keeps the excellent typographic presentation of the original iA Writer, but now gives you three different font options. In addition, there is more nuanced Markdown formatting that makes a visual distinction between heading levels.

Yet—wouldn’t it have been intuitive to serve this request by adding a font selector to a menu or a preferences dialog?

What’s still missing

Although it’s thrown at users a bunch of solutions to problems that never existed (the need to select a mode depending on whether you’re taking notes, writing, or editing; an inability to highlight the conjunctions in a document), iA Writer Pro ignores some of users’ long-running feature requests. It’s also missing some features that you’d expect from a pro-grade Markdown writing app.

No dark mode

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous requests directed at the iA Writer Twitter account, including some of my own, that ask for a dark mode, with light-colored text on a dark background. The official response has been “press Fn+Ctrl+Opt+Cmd+8 to reverse your display’s colors”. This comes with a few nasty side-effects, including the presence of bright pixels at the screen corners if you’re in full-screen mode.

Years on, and a $20 paid upgrade later, and iA Writer users have got a bunch of stuff they never asked for, but there’s still no dark mode.

No outline mode

One of the main reasons I don’t use iA Writer regularly at the moment is that I’m in the middle of editing a 110,000-word novel, and for that I need to be able to jump around my document to my different chapter and section headings.

This need for outlining has driven me to more full-featured text editors and Markdown editors, including Textmate, Textastic (just $8.99!), Ulysses 3 and the multiplatform Sublime Text.

Is there hope?

There’s a backlash against Writer Pro on iA’s support forums right now, and it leads me to hope that the developers might change their direction and move Writer Pro more toward being a capable (and dare I say conventional) app that warrants its “pro” designation.

While it’s certainly against iA’s ethos to turn Writer Pro into a full-featured text-editor laden with menus and syntax highlighters, incremental upgrades to its core features may have been worth paying money for:

  • dark mode
  • tweaked, improved Markdown autoformatting
  • tweaked, improved DOCX import and export (one of my favorite features, and not seen in other Markdown editors I’m aware of)
  • more import and export formats (ePub, HTML)
  • an outline viewer or navigator
  • extra font choices (not top of my list, but important to others)

Until or unless iA starts thinking about adding features such as these, some of which have been desired and asked for by its users, instead of making bizarre revolutions that shuffle people’s files without telling them, and cluttering what used to be a pristinely minimal user interface.

The alternatives

These days my main writing environment is Sublime Text, a cross-platform text editor designed for coders with robust navigation features which is also easily extensible with a unique package manager. While for many Sublime Text would be overkill, these days I almost can’t live without being able to hit Cmd+P and zip over to another chapter without taking my hands off the keyboard.

In addition, I’ve been spending time with Ulysses 3, which also has an outline viewer, and distraction-free modes that parallel Writer Pro. Ulysses 3 is distinguishing itself these days with robust export options and a template language inspired by CSS, and is now my preferred environment for creating ebooks from finished manuscripts.

And there’s still iA’s original distraction-free writing app, iA Writer, not quite as polished in some ways as the new Writer Pro, but less cluttered, easier to understand, and only half the price at $9.99. Superior in some ways to its successor, iA Writer is the drawing board its developers may need to go back to.

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Overman

From a deleted chapter in Seize the Girl:

And when, as I sometimes did, I threw myself wholeheartedly into identifying with my strident and forthright contempt for nearly all that was commonly accepted as good, I imagined myself fairly shining with the holy radiance of the overman.
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Chiangmai and Bangkok: Different universes

First time taking BTS..., © benhourigan
First time taking BTS… (Typical Bangkok.)
, © benhourigan

A friend asks, “You lika Bangkok?” Well…

It’s been a mixed bag—I started out in this relatively awful hostel on the (also relatively awful) Sukhumvit 11, which has a distressingly strict no-guests policy … and bedbugs, which at the daily equivalent of close to THB 30,000 a month is not on.

But then the girl I came down here to meet took me to Chao Samran on the weekend with her friends for one of the best parties I’ve been to in my life, I spent a couple of days finding a new apartment to stay at off Sukhumvit 22, and I can finally relax at “home” and do some work again. And last night we went to Asiatique, which has a spectacular view over the river from the deck.

Comparing it to Chiangmai—well, they’re two vastly different things. Bangkok reminds me of Tokyo: it’s maybe Tokyo before the property bubble and the subsequent 20 years of stagnation. Chiangmai makes me think of a small Japanese city as it might have been 70 years ago. Bangkok (or at least this part) can be almost expensive as Australia, which makes me feel very lucky that business is good right now; in Chiangmai it’s almost inconceivable that you could spend as much money as you could back home. Chiangmai has a restorative, meditative quality and human scale; Bangkok has an immense, fractal variety and modern grandeur. They seem to belong to entirely different universes.

Twilight sun over Doi Suthep, from my room on Sripoom soi 1., © benhourigan
Twilight sun over Doi Suthep, from my room on Sripoom Soi 1. (Typical Chiangmai.)
, © benhourigan

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The Wind in the Willows (review)

Wind_in_the_Willows_-_Front_coverKenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908). 5/5. 

In April this year I took a three-week holiday in Thailand that ended up encompassing a new friendship with a mentor who talked with me about Joseph Campbell, and a terrifying scooter ride up to a town in a mountain valley in which I looked into the heart of fear and found the courage to quit my old life, which in many ways I hated and could no longer bear, to strike out on my own and find a new one. More on that elsewhere.

Campbell’s idea is that there is a universal mythic structure, in which the hero hears a call to adventure, accepts it as an alternative to stagnation, finds himself then gifted with mentors and allies, and travels into the darkness to bring back something that revives the world. My real-life hero’s journey impressed me with how vital this story and process remains, and I began to talk about it with numerous people, including my mother, who was reading The Wind in the Willows at the time.

My talk of the hero’s journey, she said, corresponded very well with some of Grahame’s famous children’s book, and so it was that I finally got to this, at the age of thirty-two, after never having read it as a child.

I do, of course, remember the stop-motion film version (1983) and TV series (1984–1989) by Cosgrove Hall, which played on the ABC in Australia when I was very young. But as with many children’s classics, the book itself holds surprises for the adult reader.

First, there is the quality of the writing. After some close inspection I realized that Grahame loads most nouns with one or even two adjectives, and most verbs with an adverb, and though this is not entirely to my taste as a writer, this book does make me wonder why I’m so strict about keeping things bare of descriptive embellishment. Here, that prolixity is charming, even bewitching, and Grahame combines it with a great economy in storytelling. The crucial opening of the hero’s journey, which combines a sense of disquiet combined with a call to adventure and its answer, is dispensed with in a matter of a page or less:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him [Mole], penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing … he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor … and bolted out of the house … Something up above was calling him imperiously … he scraped and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came into the sunlight.

There is further surprise in the enchantment of the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” an otherworldly interlude in which Mole and Rat go looking for Otter’s sun, Portly, and find him on the river, called by the pipes of the demigod Pan, in whose protecting embrace they find Portly nestled. It is an occult, pagan experience that one suspects would sit uneasily with contemporary squeamishness about religious and spiritual matters.

Wind in the Willows is, in fact, open to be seen as rife with adult concerns. Mole is the stolid adult who must come to love and be comfortable with his own modest and vaguely boring self; Rat, the poet and boatman, is tempted away from his beloved home on the river by unrealistic visions of a life more adventurous and bohemian than his already is; Toad, more genuinely troubled than I remember from the TV series, seems to struggle with a relatively severe personality disorder involving narcissism and delusions of grandeur, which sees him thrown in jail for stealing and crashing a car.

Toad is reportedly modelled on Grahame’s son Alastair, or “Mouse,” who committed suicide in 1920 two days before his 20th birthday. This is one of the easiest roads in to a biographical view of the story. In an article with a headline that overdramatically reports that Grahame “drove the son who inspired him to suicide, Harry Mount of the Guardian writes:

For all his fame and fortune, Grahame remained a tortured soul until his death. [#]

This article as a whole follows a “smear the famous dead” model that I don’t approve of, and reminds me of a documentary I once saw on Bertrand Russell that blamed him for his children’s troubles. Mental illness seems a more likely explanation than parental neglect for Alistair Grahame’s suicide, particularly if Toad is any fair reflection of him.

But, knowing from a little reading about Grahame that he was driven early into work instead of study, spent a long career at the Bank of England and worked his way up to being its secretary—while writing only one major work in his lifetime—one may fairly wonder how much parts of The Wind in the Willows express his repressed longings for a different kind of life. Was he able to congratulate himself on being a reliable householder, as Rat and Badger do Mole? Did he suffer from Rat’s temptation to abandon everything for the life of a vagabond, and settle similarly for mere dabbling in literature?

Perhaps I could find out, if only… I find myself now, as often, wishing that particular works, in this case Peter Green’s Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame, Author of The Wind in the Willows, were available as ebooks, as I am currently in Bangkok and without a permanent address, living the life of Rat’s alter-ego.

In any case, this is an intriguing and classic work, redolent in parts of the hero myth as Campbell lays it out, full of adult significance that child readers will be blind to, and well worth a visit or a revisit by the middle-aged (a category which I am increasingly sure includes myself).

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