Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Travels in Xanadu-du: News

I know you're all agog to know what's happening with my book, Travels in Xanadu-du, which I suggested might be hitting the market at the end of January (2 days from now). Guess what. Slight delay. We now have an ISBN for it (978-0-9558318-0-5), which means it exists as far as the cataloguing people are concerned. But you'll have a hard time buying it yet.

The files for the cover and interior are just about to go off to the printer for proofing. Once I've received and approved the proof, we'll be ready to rock. Or roll. Or whatever. We are told to expect a ten-day wait for the proof.

We'll be flogging the book from our website xanadu-du.com/books, with a pound off the cover price. In a few days you'll be able to pre-order it from the site - I'll let you know when. In a month or two it will be available from Amazon and orderable through any bookstore. We don't expect it to be stocked in bookshops because the economics would only work if you were prepared to pay about eighteen pounds for a paperback novel - retail booksellers like to have a 55% discount - if we gave them that we would be selling the book at below production cost! We're not gonna do that on account of needing to eat and stuff.

One interesting thing we've had to deal with is shipping costs. Couriers (FedEx, DHL etc) are outrageously expensive - they want 50 or 60 Euros to deliver a package. That's the fast service. They don't seem to offer a slowish service. I think it would be ok if they would take it end-to-end and get it to wherever in about a week for ten Euros or less. But no, they don't do that, what they do is rush around like blue-arsed flies and get it there in two days. Or three if you live in Alaska or Antarctica. So we are using the British Royal Mail for delivery. This is very fine for our primary market: next day or the day after in the UK. About three days in Europe (including all of Russia!). From five days for the rest of the world. The 'from' is interesting. What it means is they will dump the stuff with the postal authority of the concerned country. What happens to it and how long it takes after that is entirely down to your local postal service. But none of it costs you, the adored customer, more than 7 Euros.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Getting There

I made another tortilla today, after investing in a plastic tortilla flipper (I think it's called a vuelca tortilla en Español). Definitely 1 Euro well-spent.

This thing made the flipping flipping easy. In today's experiment I left out the onion, and I didn't par-boil the spuds; just sauteed them for about a month. I'm not sure that the spud-cooking method made much of a difference, so I think I'll revert to par-boiling next time. And I used eight eggs instead six, and was really stingy with the heat. The result, I declare to be about 85% perfect.

I got a nice shape to the edge, perfect colour on the top (ok, I admit, the underside is a little browner), and a pleasing moistness within (that sounds almost pornographic, doesn't it?). I'm pretty pleased with this effort, and if there's any left by the time MamaDuck gets home tonight I'm sure she will be too!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Great Tortilla Disaster

Tortilla is one of my absolute favourite Spanish foods - we're not talking about little Mexican pancake thingies here, we are discussing 2-inch thick slabs of egg, potato, and optionally, onion. When I have the time, I like to go to a café mid-morning and have a Chunk & a Hunk (chunk of tortilla, hunk of bread), washed down with café con leche (coffee with leech milk). You can buy ready-made tortillas in supermarkets, but they bear about as much resemblance to the real thing as British salad cream does to mayonnaise.

Last week, BetterArf had a brainwave: she ordered a whole tortilla from a café that she frequents near her work. This thing was a work of art. It was absolutely perfect. The outside was firm and golden, the inside moist and almost-but-not-quite runny. It lasted us for three days. This morning I dreamed of that tortilla, and decided that I should really learn how to do it. I have tried making tortillas a couple of times before (although not in Spain), and the results have been edible but not remarkable.

I went out and got half a dozen eggs, and then dug out this article by Left Banker. His 3 pounds of spuds seemed excessive to me, so I did mine with a pound and a half. Also, I like my tortillas con cebolla (with onion), and so I added that. I had been worrying a bit about the plate for flipping the tortilla - all of our dinner plates are square and I suspected this would lead to some messy leakage. But the suggestion of using a pan-lid seemed good. I dug out a lid that was a perfect fit for our small Teflon-coated frying pan.

So, all set, off we go. Everything went well until I had to turn it. I placed the pan lid atop the frying pan, inverted the pan and lid, and then tried to slide the tortilla back into the pan. At this point I realised ('Houston, tenemos un problema') - the tortilla could not slide over the rim of the pan lid. It tripped, dribbled and glollopped over, spilling a good dollop of hot gloop onto my wrist - yes it hurt, and I'll have a blister later - and some more onto the worktop and floor. What went back into the pan was a broken mess. Damn. I tried to re-shape it, and then had another go at turning it, this time using a square plate. It was almost impossible to hold the plate in place, so there was a bit more gloop escape, but thankfully no more third-degree burns.

Ah well, it looks a mess, but it tastes ok.

Although next time I might omit the onion, and maybe let the potatoes cool once they've been sauteed. And get a circular dinner plate or a much-despised tortilla-turner.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

A Beautiful Day [Un Día Hermoso]

I know one of my objectives in leaving Dubai was to live somewhere with proper weather that changes seasonally, but I have to admit the Madrid winter has been getting on my tits a bit recently. It has been grey, cloudy, rainy and cold. But today was exceptional - we had a clear sky and bright sunlight, and a peak temperature of 17 degrees. For the first time in months, I was able to venture out onto the terrace in only a shirt and jeans, dispensing with the usual sweater and jacket. In fact it was so pleasant that I was able to take Bonzo out with me, and together we drank beer and read the Guardian.

Did I not tell you about Bonzo the Bonsai? Papa Noël brought him on Christmas Day, and I haven't managed to kill him yet. I screwed up the other day, though. It was the Feast Day of San Antón, who is the patron saint of pets (well, domestic animals, actually). The Church of San Antón is a mere stone's throw from our house, on Calle de Hortaleza, and people take their dogs and cats, gerbils, hamsters and ferreterias there to be blessed - had I known, I could have taken Bonzo there for a splash of Holy Water. Ah well, next year.

UPDATE: For the record, I've just found the little booklet that came with Bonzo. He is five years old, of the species Zelkova sp. Whatever that means.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Travels in Xanadu-du - part dux

One thing that is taking a huge amount of time with publishing 'Travels inXanadu-du' is the proof-reading and 'interior design' of the book. I'm too poor to afford external proofreaders and editors. But BetterArf knows her way around books and also the Engrish language, and so do I. I was working on the design of the book a few days ago, and when I thought it was ready I printed it out on the laser printer on 80 gsm recycled paper. I also printed the cover on heavy, glossy photographic paper. And then I glued the pages into the spine of the cover, and trimmed it (a bit roughly, but hey). So now I have a reasonable facsimile of what the finished book will look and feel like.

Over the last couple of days, I've taken the book and a red pen out with me, to cafés, restaurants and bars: anywhere with free heat and decent light. I find it much easier to read things this way. Very long documents on a computer screen? Forget it. Double-spaced text on A4 paper? Definitely forget it. Something that looks and feels like a book? Yes please.

So, I've spotted a few typos, and added maybe 100 words in this final re-reading process. But the thing that has amazed me is the effect of font choice on the 'length' of the book. The final version is in 11 pt Garamond, and it's 294 pages. I had previously tried 11 pt Book Antiqua, which gave us 322 pages, and 11 pt Palatino, which also resulted in 322 pages. Page count is obviously very important, especially for print-on-demand, because we have to pay for every page we print, and there are no economies of scale. It's quite important for our bottom line that we do not go above 300 pages.

Other things I've been obsessing about: dashes; hyphens are no good, apparently. You have to use long dashes. So I did a search-and-replace for the evil hyphens, and it replaced all of the legit hyphens (as in 'search—and—replace'). Dang. So then I had to go through the whole thing to sort out the short from the long. And then we have problem of single-quotes and double-quotes. You can confuse the hell out of M$ Worm with these things. Which is great, except you then have to go through the entire document line by line to sort the buggers out.

And finally, widder's endorphins. Sorry, widows and orphans. This is printer's-guild code for lines that appear on their own on a new page at the end of a chapter. They look like shit. There are a couple of them currently in the book, but they will be the last things to be dealt with, after typography, pagination, etc. The usual cure is a small amount of re-writing. I can do that.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Great Publishing Adventure

Avid readers of my Dubai blog may be aware that I wrote a novel last summer and have been trying to get the damn thing published ever since. Translation: I've been sending it off to literary agents, because traditional publishers in the UK don't dirty their hands by dealing directly with newbies any more. Furthermore, it seems the publishers don't take risks on newbies at all, and prefer to throw their money at ghost-written 'books by celebrities'. It's a tough market if you're not a celebrity who can't write. Especially for fiction.

So far I've only sent my sample stuff to literary agents who have heard of this thing called email: I've had a couple of genteel refusals, and a bunch of silence. A few weeks before Christmas I fired up the laser printer and sent printed-on-paper versions to three agents. These dudes are the first ones to get the actual final version of the book, but they all say it takes them one or two months to respond. We can probably add a fortnight to that for the Christmas holiday. Whatever, I'm not holding my breath, I could be dead before I get any response!

The important thing is to get the book out there, and then we'll see if anybody can be persuaded to buy it. So we are going to self-publish it. 'We' in this case means my very good buddy in Liverpool, and me.

Is this vanity publishing, Keefie? Absolutely not. With vanity publishing you pay a shitload of money to a company who will sort out your scribbles, print a few hundred or a few thousand copies and deliver them to you. They will then rot in your garage. Our venture means that we become the publishers: we have our own ISBNs, we have designed the cover and the book interior, and we own all of the rights to the material. We won't have a shedful of unshiftable stock, but if you order a copy you'll have it in 2-4 days. And we'll be doing some serious marketing to get the thing moving.

How is this possible? Through the magic of Print-On-Demand. What happens is that we lodge the digital artwork for the cover and the interior with our printer. In theory, if we have an order for one book, they will print one book on their digital printers - they produce around one million books per year, but their average print run is 1.8 books - and ship it to us. In reality, we will always maintain a small stock for immediate despatch. The book will be available from our website, Amazon.com and trade distributors. POD is somewhat more expensive than offset (about 4x), but we think the advantages outweigh the cost: it means we can get the product out there in the market for a minimal outlay and see if we can generate the demand for it.

I think the book will be available around the end of January, so get saving your centimos: I expect all of you to buy at least one copy, and I'll know if you don't.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

English Words in Spanish [Palabras Inglés en Español]

I'm pleased to report that the Spanish language is holding its own against the world-dominating advance of English; there seem to be very few English words in the Spanish language. Where they do occur you should pretend that they are Spanish and pronounce them accordingly. If you go into a Burger King and request a Whopper, you'll be met by a blank stare. What you need to ask for is 'oon Whoppair'.

Sandwich? No. Sanweech. Yes.

And it's a good job I don't like croissants because the Spanish way of pronouncing that is just too painful.

Recently I needed to buy a craft knife. I went to the nearest stationers armed with the word 'cuchillo' in my head.

'¡Give me a cuchillo!'

'¿For ham? ¿For the kitchen?

'Nonono. For paper.'

'Aah. You want a kootair.'

'Er, yes. A cutter. Yes.'

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Los Reyes Magos

Finally, the Christmas season in Spain is (almost) finished. Today's highlight was the Parade of the Three Kings through Madrid. It began at 6pm at Nuevos Ministerios, and made its stately way down Paseos Castellano and Recoletos to Plaza Cibeles, a distance of 4.4kms. Tomorrow is when long-suffering Spanish kids get their Christmas presents.

We got to Recoletos early, and queued for a seat on one of the temporary grandstands that had been erected along the route. Unfortunately, the stand we were waiting for filled up before we could get on it, so we wandered up the road to Plaza Colón and beyond. We saw lots of people coming prepared with the vital accessory for an occasion such as this: a stepladder.

As we passed Plaza de Colón just before 6 we saw a few angels flying off up the street, presumably to meet the Kings and guide them on their way.

Our expectations for this event were a bit vague: three guys dressed as Kings and riding camels. So we were blown away when the cavalcade arrived where we were at about 6.30 - it was a huge procession of about 50 floats, many of them quite amazing in their own right, interspersed with a few marching bands and people in historic costumes on horseback. I began to think that the Kings on their camels were going to look a bit feeble, but it turned out that the 'camels' were floats of glittering crystal-like light; absolutely dazzling.

When the parade had passed - it took about an hour - we headed down to Plaza Cibeles. I had a hunch that there would be a bit of a show on down there, and I was not disappointed. The tail end of the parade was entering the Plaza as we got there, and the Kings had picked up escorts - beautifully painted gas balloons with an acrobat suspended from each one. Awesome!

A stage had been set up in front of Our Lady of Telecommunications*, and we watched a gorgeous bit of dance by three ballerinas, listened to a speech by person unknown, and then enjoyed a terrific firework display.

Madrid certainly knows how to put on a show!

On this day it is traditional to eat a special kind of cake - roscón del reyes. It's a circular thing with a hole in the middle (like a very big doughnut) and candied fruit on the top. Small gifts may be baked into it. BetterArf had managed to buy a small one, so we ate that when we got home. Didn't find a gift though.

*Palacio de Telecommunicaciones - formerly the main Post Office, since late last year the Madrid City Hall - nobody seems to know where the main post Office is now. The 'Our Lady' tag comes from the resemblance of the building to a cathedral.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Finding Flats to Rent in Madrid

This is a bit of a shameless plug, but hey, it's my blog! And it might help other people moving to Madrid. When we first arrived back in August last year, job number one was to find somewhere to live. This proved to be pretty difficult as we had virtually no Spanish and most landlords had no English. We tried really hard, but advertised flats had either already been let or somebody would call us back later (I think this is Spanish for 'you call me back when you can speak Spanish properly' or 'I'm having my lunch, go away').

We knew there were rental agencies out there. We stumbled across a horrible one when we answered an advert. They spoke no English and told us that for a fee of about one month's rent, they would give us a list of available properties. It was then up to us to make arrangements to view them. We declined.

A few days later we stumbled across another agency, run by a very chatty and helpful British bloke called Mike. We went to meet him at his office (on a Sunday!), he listened to what we wanted, and gave us a list of three places to look at. He made appointments for us with the landlords and when we came back empty-handed but with an increased budget he was more than happy to dig out another three places to look at. As it happened we fell in lurve with the first of the second batch, and Mike did some negotiating with the landlord and arranged a meeting for us to go and sign the contract. He also came to that meeting, and went through the contract clause by clause so that we understood what was going on. For this he charged us two weeks' rent, and it really was worth it.

Subsequently I have built him a really fab website and he is now getting enquiries from people all over the world and is arranging accommodation for them before they land. I wish the website had existed before we landed. Flats to rent in Madrid.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Happy New Year! [¡Feliz Año!]

Along with half of the population of Madrid we headed down to Puerta del Sol as midnight approached. It was mayhem down there. As we entered the square we were swept along in a tide of humanity. It was pretty scary. We decided to retreat up one of the side streets - still crowded, but at least your feet were on the ground and you decided which way to go rather than the crowd doing it for you. We saw the clock strike midnight, and a spectacular fireworks show. We ate the regulation twelve grapes, but couldn't hear the bells so we just did it as quickly as we could.

Then we took the scenic route home, drank cava on the terrace and watched hundreds of fireworks going off all over the city until the wee small hours.

A Happy New Year to you all, and I hope that 2008 brings you everything you wish for.