People talk about writer's block, but they rarely talk about cover block. This involves spending up to a couple of years working on a piece of writing, then your publisher wraps it in something that tightens every sphincter in your body and makes your brain feel like it's about to commit a kamikaze death leap out of one of your ears.

Now, I'm fortunate in that I've never had that experience, nor am I likely to: there was an early version of the cover design for Against Gravity I wasn't entirely sure about, but Tor UK (as H/al Duncan pointed out in his own blog) were incredibly good about allowing me input. Which is pretty remarkable, given that there's no guarantee any particular author is going to have the faintest clue what a good cover design should look like. Put yourself in the shoes of an editor trying to explain to an author why the painting his mate down the pub knocked together isn't necessarily suitable for a print run of fifteen thousand trade paperbacks.

The reason authors get so worked up about this, I think, has to do with a degree of identification between the author and the book they've written: that book isn't just selling the words on the pages, it's selling - in a sense - the author as well. That's you on the shelf: and if somebody's taken your technothriller and wrapped it up in a party dress with a pink ribbon, you're going to feel driven to suggest this is perhaps inappropriate.

The fact that Tor Uk are not only going to accept feedback from one of their authors, but even go so far as to act on that feedback, is a phenomenon perhaps unprecedented in modern publishing: as long as there have been books, there have been writers wailing about their cover design. Book companies do not have a reputation for taking writer's comments concerning cover art on board. The people most authors deal with, after all, are the editorial staff: all the art stuff is in another department, closely tied in with marketing.

I got thinking about all this when I was at a writer's circle meeting last Tuesday. Jim Steel came along as he occasionally does, and showed me a copy of the most recent Locus magazine: naturally I flicked through to the 'British Books Received' pages and, with heavy heart, noted the early 'discarded' version of the cover for Against Gravity up there in black and white at the top of the page.

The reason for this is simple, and in fact makes a fair bit of sense. The opportunities for promoting a book tend to be limited. In some ways, a publisher's job is not so much to sell a book to the public as it is to sell it to the booksellers. The presence of some form of cover art is frequently an important part of this, so Tor simply used what it had to hand. Which is why there are, at least for the moment, two versions of the cover art for Against Gravity floating around: the one that got chucked (as seen in Starburst and Locus), and the one that's actually going to be on the book (to your left, top of the page).

In this light, I've been aware of certain related conversations in the online sf world, in particular an online discussion and essay by Ted Chiang, concerning the US cover design for his collection of short stories. He hated it so much he paid an artist three grand to come up with a brand new design, which his publishers rejected: he considered giving it away to people who'd already bought the book to put around it, which his publishers hated even more.

I tripped across a new cover design for a book by Lucius Shephard called The Golden, which it was clear from the context of an online conversation Mr Shephard wasn't happy about. Personally, I wasn't so hot on it either: but I own an earlier hardback cover of The Golden from about ten years ago, and I'm not sure that isn't worse.

The thing is, if you're just someone browsing through the bookshelves of a shop looking for something to read, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was perhaps all a bit of a storm in a teacup. It's only a cover, you might say. And, that's true. But on this side of the fence, it feels different: it's like someone's paid you a sum of money to publish your book, but in return you need to attend every subsequent sf convention and business meeting dressed like a mutant duck. In other words, people feel silly at the least, badly misrepresented at the worst. They want their work - and writing a book is a lot of work - to have dignity. Nothing wrong with that.

The worst possible outcome is when a book isn't so much given dodgy cover art as mis-marketed. The other day, someone was having a clear-out of books and I subsequently received a copy of Dreamwatcher, by Theodore Roszak. Now, Roszak isn't exactly a house-hold name, but he's known in certain circles for his non-fiction writing. However, I've only read one book of his, a work of fiction, called Flicker, which easily makes it into my top hundred books of all time (the convoluted route by which I became aware of this novel is an entire blog entry in itself, one I intend to write up sometime quite soon). It's a complex detective story concerning the hunt for an elusive movie maker embarked upon by a young film critic, and even these few words don't even begin to do justice to this remarkable book.

The copy of Dreamwatcher I received I haven't yet read, but it's unlikely I would ever have picked it up from any bookshelf if I wasn't already aware of the name: the art - the copy dates, probably, from the mid-eighties at the latest, mid-Seventies at the earliest - is of the type I'd expect to find wrapped around some hacked-out sub-Stephen King gorefest by a writer of considerably less talent than I know Mr Roszak to have. Now - I haven't actually read the book yet, and for all I know it deserves exactly the cover it got. But, you know something tells me otherwise.


Reasons for not blogging: writing four (four!) book outlines and subsequent sample chapters simultaneously. In no particular order: A Hundred Houses, A Gift From the Angels (formerly Leviathan's Fall, formerly Touched by an Angel), Snowflake (working title only: previously Slow Burn), and Wonderland (formerly but also still possibly Things Unseen).


Other reasons for not blogging: a request from Cheryl Morgan to Glasgow writers to put together a few words about the city, for the benefit of visitors coming to the Worldcon in August. It made sense to put my stuff up here as well (since I'd been thinking,really, of doing something like this anyway as the Worldcon approached). So:

The Barras

Found at the east end of the city centre, just off the High Street, which in previous centuries stood near the city centre (since moved about a mile west). It’s worth making the distinction between ‘The Barrowlands’ and ‘The Barras’ as the former is the venue for the majority of visiting rock and pop acts in Glasgow, and the latter is the weekend market that takes place around it.
At the Barras, it’s possible to pick up anything from fresh fruit and veg to an unholy quantity of tat as well as genuine rarities: within a few blocks you can find TV’s, used clothes, broken cassette recorders, bootleg software, music and DVD’s, smuggled tobacco, furniture, antiques, rare vinyl, posters, more bootlegs, cameras, Betamax video players, carpets, eight track stereos, dodgy paintings of Elvis, and local bands filming cheap videos with their mates from the Art School in order to look more ‘street’.
To get a flavour of the Barras, think: what your weekend shopping might be like if the Cold War had gone nuclear sometime in the mid-Eighties.
Across the road from the Barrowlands music venue, can be found the famous/notorious ‘Saracen’s Head’ drinking establishment, originally built to cater for the executioners who used to ply their trade nearby (the ‘Necropolis’ graveyard being conveniently located just up the road). Visiting the ‘Head is not necessarily recommended to visitors from the States, despite it having supposedly cleaned up its act in recent years (unless you really want to risk re-enacting the ‘mugging a tourist’ scene from Trainspotting).
On a similar note, the Barrowlands music venue is also notorious as being the 1960’s stalking ground of Scotland’s most infamous serial killer, Bible John.
It’s also worth noting the nearby Paddy’s Market: in some ways, Paddy’s represents the true nature of the Barras, which – like Paddy’s – started out primarily as a gathering point not only for local farmers but also rag-and-bone men who would bring other people’s detritus to market on barrows.
To get a flavour of Paddy’s, think: your weekend shopping after a nuclear exchange, but followed by irreversible nuclear winter.
Open: weekends, from about 9 to 4. Getting there: train from station opposite SECC, to Argyle St. station, then ten minute walk or two minutes by taxi. Also plenty of buses.

(Some) Rock pubs
Some of Glasgow’s bars have become quite famous due to their associations with the drinking and social habits of various bands who’ve come to prominence in recent years (Franz Ferdinand, etc). Prominent amongst these is King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, (Oasis were ‘discovered’ here, playing to an audience of barely a dozen, by a less than sober Alan McGee). For up-and-coming bands, it’s the first stop on arrival in the city: it’s split into two halves, the bar area on the ground floor, with the rowdy noise-making taking place upstairs.
A few blocks away on Sauchiehall Street is Nice n’ Sleazy, which caters mostly to old punks and students from the nearby Glasgow School of Art. Features faux-retro d├ęcor and paintings of slightly sinister-looking green-skinned women in turbans, courtesy of local artist Ronnie Heeps. Expect to find indie bands gathered in alcoves, discussing how to break it big.
King Tut’s: 272a St. Vincent Street www.kingtuts.co.uk
Nice n’ Sleazy: 421 Sauchiehall Street
Ronnie Heeps: www.painfulcreatures.com/collheeps.html

Bars also worth mentioning:
For those seeking a quiet drink and maybe a meal, The Goat is worth considering: a short (fifteen minute) walk from the front entrance of the SECC, The Goat also features free WIFI if you decide to bring your laptop with you (they also have a computer you can use if you don’t). A mixture of old ‘found’ furniture and the stylishly modern but comfortable.
The Goat, 1287 Argyle Street, www.thegoat.co.uk

If you’re looking for something approximating a genuine, old-fashioned ‘Scottish’ bar, this place is worth a shot: very much a ‘dog sleeping in the corner, couple of people playing traditional music on fiddles’ kind of place, it’s hardly lacking in atmosphere. Also situated conveniently very close to the SECC. Be warned: as pubs go, it’s very small – I’ve been in bathrooms that were bigger.
Ben Nevis, 1147 Argyle Street

The West End:
Like many cities, Glasgow has its own ‘bohemian quarter’, or - more accurately - student district, centred around the axis of Great Western Road and Byres Road in the West End.
Your best route through this area is to come up the orange tunnel next to the entrance to the SECC, keep walking up Minerva Street (car dealership on your left), then turn left onto St. Vincent Crescent, turn right at Cecil Street, which leads directly onto Argyle Street.
(Alternatively, catch the train into Central Station, walk a block to the St. Enoch subway station, and catch a ride to Kelvingrove Subway, which will deposit you directly onto Great Western Road).
This part of Argyle Street – which runs right through the city – has enjoyed a transformation over the past several years as rocketing property prices in the West End have forced both new house owners and students to look increasingly farther afield from Byres Road/Great Western Road for places to live. As a result, some of the trendiest as well as the nicest bars can also be found here, a few minutes walk from the SECC.
Once on Argyle Street, turn to your left and walk for a minute or so until you reach Kelvinhaugh Street, where Stereo can be found, a bar catering primarily to an audience hungry for live indie bands (the aforementioned The Goat, as well as Ben Nevis, are literally seconds away on Argyle Street).
A few blocks further along, Argyle Street merges with Sauchiehall Street to become Dumbarton Road: here you’ll find the Art Galleries, unfortunately still closed for renovation.
Best bet is to keep along Argyle Street to where you’ll see the road split in two with a garage stuck in the middle: go down the right fork and immediately turn the corner – you’ll see the Kelvin Way, a road which cuts straight past the Art Galleries (on your left) and on into the West End, along with Kelvingrove Park (on your right).
At the end of the Kelvin Way you’ll find Gibson Street cutting down to your right: it features the excellent and highly recommended Stravaigin’s bar, as well as a very agreeable coffee house a few doors further down.
Keep going along Kelvin Way and it becomes Bank Street, which is where the West End really begins. Keep going until Great Western Road: if you turn right here, you’re heading into town. Turn left, and you’re heading into the University district.
Turn towards town (to your right), and you’ll find several bars, restaurants and cafes within a block or two (all generally pretty good: The Liquid Ship has a good reputation), along with an Apple Macintosh shop (Scotsys, if you’re in desperate needs of parts or supplies), and further along a bicycle shop (Alpine Bikes, who also rent bikes out: www.alpinebikes.co.uk/ourshops/goe.aspx).
You’ll also find Caledonia Books, a well-known second-hand bookstore (Voltaire and Rousseau is just around the corner in Otago Street).
Walk further up Great Western Road away from town (ie turn to your left), and you’ll find: health food stores, record shops, furniture, and many, many charity shops. A busy, popular area.
Walk several blocks along Great Western Road away from the city centre, and you’ll reach the point where Great Western Road meets Byres Road. Here you’ll find Oran Mor, a church recently converted into an enormous bar with ceiling paintings by local literary light Alisdair Gray: it’s already got an excellent reputation, both as a bar and as a venue for the arts (it puts on plays almost daily). Be warned, however, it’s almost always very, very busy.
In this area, you’ll also find one or two shops catering to the art market, good to know if you’re at all thinking about taking the work of Scottish artists home with you.
The Botanics are across the road, on your left – stop here for a moment or two to enjoy the shade in the giant greenhouses, particularly good if you’re caught in the occasionally chilly Scottish ‘summer’. Otherwise, more of the same down Byres Road: record shops – particularly the dirt-cheap and highly regarded Fopp!, which also sells mucho cheap paperbacks as well as cd’s and dvd’s. Keep going and you’ll also find the Oxfam charity bookshop, also good for a browse.
Walk past the Hillhead subway station and turn immediately into the lane on your left for several excellent bars (including The Scotia, which often has live music of a more traditional variety) and restaurants (The Loft, as well as the very famous but not inexpensive Ubiquitous Chip, almost entirely populated by assistant producers from the BBC and out of work actors), as well as a small cinema. This is as close to the spiritual heart of the West End as you can get. Also here can be found the Mclellan Galleries, a large building filled with many small shops selling everything from locally made jewellery to video games to second hand vinyl.