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BWF: Book Futures, Contracts and Serialised Novels

Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 3: The Future of the Book

Panelists: Simon Groth, if:book

Did you know there’s an international organisation called if:book ? It stands for Institute for the Future of the Book. Yeah, me neither.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the Institute started in New York, then spread to London and finally Australia. Based on what I learned during this session, the purpose of if:book is to keep in touch with people in the publishing community, and communicate ideas about the future of the book.

If it helps, that didn’t really clear anything up for me either.

Simon was interesting, in a geeky let’s-talk-about-ebooks-but-nobody-get-scared kind of way, but I have absolutely zero notes about his session.

Actually, that’s not true. I have one word written down: zeitgeist. Because I was impressed that he managed to use it in the middle of a sentence without skipping a beat.

Rating: 2/5

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Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 4: Negotiating Contracts

Panelists: Alex Adsett, Publishing Consultant

I really didn’t expect to enjoy a session on publishing contracts. It’s kind of like going to the fair and lining up to get your taxes done. But Alex Adsett managed to be both informative and interesting, and I came away with four full pages of notes. Some of the main points were:

  • A publishing contract can be anywhere from 3 to 30 pages long, depending on the publisher and the type of book.
  • While most clauses are pretty much copper-plate from contract to contract, there are a few to watch out for. Reversion of rights is one of the biggies, so look out for both what’s said and what’s not said.
  • Don’t sign anything without having it looked over, and if you don’t understand, ask questions!

The biggest thing I got out of this session is the solid decision that if I am traditionally published, I really want an agent to double-check the 30 page legal document, thankyouverymuch.

Rating: 4/5

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Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 5: Connecting with Readers

Panelists: Max Barry (author), Anna Lensky (Publicity Manager)

This final part of the AWM Industry Masterclass was all about interesting and unusual ways that authors can connect with readers, from utilising publicity managers to book trailers to more outside-the-box thinking. While all of that was interesting, none of it was really new to me. What I enjoyed about this session was Max Barry’s story of how Machine Man came to be written.

A few years ago, Max was working on a novel and chronicling his progress on his blog. Not in any great detail (no plot/characters/story/etc), but enough to let people know that he was working on one. Finally, the day came when he finished it and he wrote a blog post about how it was his “best novel yet” and everyone was going to love it.

Then his agent hated it. And so did his editor. Nobody was interested in buying it, and he was back to square one.

Plus, he had to go back to his blog audience and announce that his “best novel yet” actually wasn’t. Can you even imagine the embarrassment factor there? So he made a decision not to blog about his writing in the future.

Instead, Max blogged about his dog, and growing a moustache, and other day-to-day stuff. And one day he got an email from a frustrated fan. The email essentially said:

What the hell are you doing? Stop blogging about pointless stuff, and get back to writing awesome novels! If you don’t come up with something soon, I’m going to be forced to read Twilight.

Max’s first reaction was to think about how most people don’t realise the time involved in writing a book and getting it published. But then he started to think about how he could remedy the situation. So he decided to create a serialised novel via his blog.

The idea was simple. Each weekday, a new page of the story (approx 400 words) would be sent to subscribers via email or text message. They would then be able to comment on the writing as it was going, make suggestions, ask questions, etc etc.

And that’s how Machine Man was written. It was a serialised novel written 400 words at a time, and distributed via the internet. What an amazing world we live in.

Things I learned from this story:

  • Be careful what you share on your blog. It could come back to bite you later.
  • Emailing and heckling your favourite authors could lead to great innovations in storytelling and result in their next book being dedicated to you.

Rating: 4/5

(Read more about my BWF adventures here.)

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Book Review: Machine Man

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Max Barry. I’ve reviewed all three of his previous books —Syrup, Jennifer Government and Company — and had the chance to meet him and have him sign my copy of Machine Man at the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival. So I’m sure it will come as no surprise when I say that I absolutely loved this book.

When scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident, it’s not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. Charlie always thought his body could be better. His employer, military contractor Better Future, has the resources he needs to explore a few ideas. So he begins to build parts. Better parts.

Charlie’s prosthetist, Lola, is impressed by his artificial limbs. But some see him as a madman. Others, a product. Or even a weapon.

This is one of those times where I don’t think the jacket copy really does the story justice. Based on this description, I expected to enjoy Machine Man, but I didn’t expect to come to love and empathise with Charlie to the degree I did.

So here’s my version:

When scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident, all he wants to do is disappear from the world, taking his shame and his top-of-the-line artificial leg with him. Then he falls in love with his prosthetist, Lola,  and realises that losing a limb doesn’t have to be a handicap. With his skills, he can improve his prosthesis until it’s as good as the real thing.

But why stop there? His employer, military contractor Better Future, has the resources for him to build a prosthetic leg that’s even better than the real thing. Then the only question is: Why stop at just one leg?


One of the things I really enjoyed about Machine Man is that throughout the story, everything Charles Neumann does makes sense. There’s never a point where you step back and think, “Woah! That’s crazy, man!” But by the time you get to the end of the book, you realise that somewhere along the way, at some point, something must have gone wrong in Charlie’s head because it’s just insane to chop off perfectly good parts of your own body. Isn’t it?

Machine Man has been described as “gruesomely funny”, and I’d agree with that. It’s also incredibly honest and, at times, quite touching.  And, of course, whatever else it is, Machine Man is a love story. It’s just a classic case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy chops off own limbs to get girl.

This is one of my favourite of Barry’s books, second only to Syrup. I highly recommend it. And, as my parting gift to you, I leave you once again with the book trailer. (If you think this is darkly amusing, you’ll love the book. Trust me.)

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Yet another reason print books aren’t going anywhere

Just a short post today, because I’m off to my second day at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I’ll write more about that later. But, for right now, here’s a peak at my material souvenir. (Squeee! So exciting!)

Oh, and if you haven’t checked out Max’s book trailer for Machine Man, you really need to. It’s hilarious.

You’re welcome.

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Book Review: Company

I recently read Max Barry’s third (and most recent) book, Company. As you may know, I’m a bit of a fan of Barry, and spend an inordinately inappropriate amount of time reading through the backlist of posts on his blog. When I read his other two books (Syrup and Jennifer Government), I was so keen to write about them that I had barely closed the back cover before I was pounding out a review. On the other hand, I finished reading Company almost two weeks ago, and have only just got to the point where I’m ready to write about it.

I am really loathe to say this, but… I didn’t enjoy Company as much as Barry’s other books. Excuse me while I spent some time cringing in horror at my own statement.

At Zephyr Holdings, no one has ever seen the CEO in person. The beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else, but does no apparent work. The sales reps use relationship self-help books as sales manuals, and one is on the warpath because of a missing mid-morning donut. In other words, it’s an ordinary big company.

 Company is the story of Jones, a man employed by Zephyr Holdings to sell training programs. He quickly realises that none of his colleagues know what the company actually does. So he sets about finding out.

I sat down and read this novel in a single sitting. Seriously. I let my husband make his own dinner, I ignored my son’s plaintive cries that he needed to eat, and I locked myself in the bathroom with the shower running so that I’d have enough peace and quiet to finish the book. And there wasn’t a single part of the book that I didn’t enjoy. The characters are realistic, the plot is eerily plausible, and the twist is unexpected enough to be entertaining, without coming completely out of left field. But I still felt strangely… unfulfilled.

I sat and tried to work out what the problem could have been:

Is Company funny? Yes. Well, it’s amusing in a satirical way, although not laugh-out-loud funny like Syrup.

Is Company exciting? Yes. Well, it’s exciting in a corporate way, but not full of edge-of-your-seat thrills like Jennifer Government.

Does Company hold your attention, and make you feel like you’re in the middle of the story? Yes. Although where Syrup had me trying to think up a marketing campaign to destroy Sneaky Pete and Jennifer Government had me feeling like an action-hero in a world-gone-stupid, Company just had me feeling like I was trapped in an all-too-familiar Kafka-esque tableau.

And I think that’s why I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Barry’s earlier ones. Syrup was set in the exciting world of LA and Hollywood, and Jennifer Government was set in an entire alternate-present world. Company, however, was set inside a single corporation; a single building; a handful of people. And it felt claustrophobic in comparison.

In saying all of that, I definitely recommend Company. I just don’t agree that it’s Barry’s best book. At least, it’s not my favourite. But I urge you to read all three and decide for yourself.

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Book Review: Jennifer Government

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!

Jennifer Government is Max Barry’s second book, published in 2003. As I mentioned here, I am a bit of a fan of Max Barry’s writing. I approached the reading of Jennifer Government in much the same way that I’d approach an ice-cream sundae – a great deal of anticipation, coupled with the knowledge that once I’ve finished it, it will all be over. So I kept the book sitting next to my bed in my pile of “to be read” books for quite some time before finally giving in and hurling myself into it.

The story is set in a future, where the USA has taken control of the majority of the developed world, including the UK, parts of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. All of these countries fall under US control – therefore, there isn’t any need for international trading. Capitalizm is the new political structure, which is essentially rule-by-corporation, with taxation abolished and the public sector privatised. The Government no longer has any power other than the prevention of crime and, budget withstanding, punishment of criminals. The Police is a private law enforcement and mercenary company, Ambulances are only provided for sick or injured parties once payment has been made, and welfare of all kinds has been abolished.

In this world of corporate-rule, all citizens take their surnames from the company for which they work. Some of the main characters in the story are Jennifer Government (she works for the Government), Hack Nike (he works for Nike), Billy NRA (he works for the NRA), etc…. You get the picture. This naming extends all the way to children, who are given a surname based on the school they attend – each one funded by a particular corporation (Mattel and McDonald’s schools are specifically mentioned.).

The story follows the results of a marketing-campaign-gone-insane. John Nike, VP of Guerilla Marketing, develops a campaign that will allow Nike to sell the new Nike Mercury sneakers for $2500 a pair, despite them only costing pennies to manufacture. The key element of this campaign is simple: Increase demand by having teenagers who purchase the Nike Mercury’s assassinated for their shoes.

To this end, John Nike tricks one of his subordinates, Hack Nike, into signing a contract agreeing to do the assassinating. When Hack realises what’s going on, he immediately goes to the police, who helpfully offer to do the assassinations for him, for a fee. This sets off a chain of events that leads to Jennifer Government being assigned to bring down John Nike, and prevent an all-out war between rival corporations.

I absolutely loved Jennifer Government. It brought back memories of playing the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG as a teenager – hacking into corporate databases, sneaking past gun-toting corporate mercenaries, and waiting for the sudden but inevitable betrayal from the corp who hired the group. All while wearing mirrorshades. Especially at night.

Jennifer Government as a story is definitely Corporate Satire rather than Cyberpunk, but the setting could be either. And, to be perfectly honest, as much as I enjoyed the story, Max Barry’s well realised setting, established without the need for a “data dump” at any point, is what really impressed and entertained me.

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Book Review: Syrup

Max Barry’s debut novel Syrup (published under the name Maxx Barry) was published in 1999. I wanted to read it within 3 minutes of stumbling across Max Barry’s blog a couple of weeks ago. That’s prbably a slight exaggeration. Let’s go with ‘an hour after stumbling across his blog’ instead. It took me that long to tear myself away from browsing, sharing posts on Facebook, and laughing out loud at his various posts. By that time, I was desperate to read all of his novels as soon as possible, and (according to my husband) I had developed a non-sexual crush on Max Barry.

Syrup is the story of Scat, a recent marketing graduate, and his introduction into the fast-paced, back-stabbing world of corporate corruption. I mean, marketing. His easy road to world-domination (or, at least, fame and fortune) is blocked by two other marketing graduates: 6, the smart, sexy, and completely ruthless love of Scat’s life, and Sneaky Pete, a man who is so cool he doesn’t even need to speak to be successful.

I loved the meta-humour of this satire as well. As I mentioned above, Barry published Syrup under the name Maxx Barry. Accrding to his website:

He put an extra X in his name for Syrup because he thought it was a funny joke about marketing and failed to realize everyone would assume he was a pretentious asshole.

Each chapter of the book is also divided into small sections, each with a title and purpose. These reminded me of short ad-spots, and added to the feel of the book. As a bonus, the breaks make it a perfect novel for reading in short bursts on public transport, etc. In saying that, I read the entire novel in a day and a half, and when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about the book.

It’s fair to say that I had very high expectations before I started reading Syrup. It’s also fair to say that those expectations were not only met, but exceeded. The characters are amazing, the plot is fantastically cycnical, and I laughed out loud more than once while reading it. I then proceeded to rave about it to anyone who would listen, which immediately inspired me to read it a second time.

Absolutely awesome.

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