Ken Hutton

Author of ‘Social card games’

A look back at creating Social card games

It's less than a week now until the release of Social card games on the 16th. So I thought I'd take a look back at how I got this far.

2019 I was sick – all year. It started with a nasty chest infection that struck very suddenly and left me struggling to breathe. I won't bore you with the many unpleasant complications that came during the waiting lists, but they eventually decided it must have been a virus because they hadn't found anything else. For reasons that baffled and infuriated me they told me the exhaustion I was left with was post viral fatigue, but that they “don't like” to diagnose it.

Anyway, it was somewhere in the midst of all that pain, exhaustion and confusion that I started working on the book. Late Spring would be my guess, but I didn't actually start journalling my progress until the Summer of 2020.

Date: Sun Jun 21 09:49:41 2020 +0100

Time to ring some changes

I don't know why I haven't been tracking revisions so far. But I'm about to embark on some serious restructuring of the book, so it seemed a good idea to initialise a repository.

That message refers to my decision to use a piece of software called git. It's normally used by software developers – especially free software developers – to collaborate on a project. It is both the means of sharing their work with each other and of tracking changes and additions over time. For my book I was interested in it for the latter – it would be my journal and a series of historical versions of the book as I edited it. I thought it would help me discipline myself to take notes of what I was doing during the editing process and it would make it possible to undo changes that I regretted.

The “serious restructuring” I referred to was my solution to a roadblock I'd hit. The most obvious way to structure a book like this is to split the games up into categories and have a chapter for each. So in June 2020 I had chapters on trick taking games, shedding games, capture games, melding games, fishing games and – inevitably – miscellaneous games. Within each of these chapters I had sorted the games from the simplest to the most complex. But I found the resulting order of the games unsatisfying.

There are common rules and concepts that pop up in different games and they aren't necessarily limited to one of these categories. Some of the trick taking games had rules in common with shedding games and fishing games. But then the fishing games had rules in common with the melding games. So whatever order I put the chapters in I had lots of page references to simpler games in later chapters. The categories that had seemed to make so much sense before, now seemed arbitrary and unhelpful.

I dug up another set of free software – graphviz – and started building up a “digraph” of these common rules and concepts and the games that contained them. A digraph (short for directed graph) is just a bunch of things (jargon: vertices) with arrows pointing from one to another (jargon: arcs). I was like one of those movie detectives who gets busted off the case and covers the wall of his apartment in index cards connected by lengths of coloured yarn. I knew there was a pattern and I was determined to find it.

I naïvely thought I'd have the book finished by Christmas. It was getting close to the current form by November and I worked quite intensely that month, going over each game to make sure the explanations were clear and the jargon was consistent throughout the book. I found more commonalities between the games as I went and continued to tweak the order, even inventing another simple game – then called boneface, now thirty-one bones – because I thought that cribbage was introducing too many rules in one go. I quite like thirty-one bones as a kids game, or a quick and easy game while waiting for all the players to settle for the main event.

By the end of January I had gone through all the games in this way, and February saw me arranging things in a page size that Ingram Spark would work with and sketching up ideas for the cover and the shuffling illustrations.

Date: Sat Feb 13 18:15:25 2021 +0000

Assorted edits

Intro and capture games mainly. I'm a bit staggered by the amount of faff that creating an ebook will be. Probably should have looked into it much sooner. Mawkeb will make it easier to produce LaTeX and XML from the same source, but I don't want to put this book on hold for too long. So now I need to replace all the kooky Lua stuff that's hard to convert and create XML versions of all the sections. If I make it my day job for the coming week I should be able to get it done.

A week? Maybe it was good to keep thinking the end was just over the next ridge. After that week I decided it would be easier to semi-manually convert everything to xhtml for the ebook and write a program to convert that to a format that could be typeset for print.

Mawkeb is a pipe dream – some software I intend to write to make my life a little easier in the long run. I think I'll make a start on it after Christmas.

Date: Mon Mar 1 15:03:50 2021 +0000

Script and makefile for pdf via context +various

Lots of little things I found as I was setting up the conversion. Still need to pick through with a fine tooth comb and make sure I meet the distributors requirements, but it's looking OK. For the first time in a month I feel like I'm further ahead than I was.

Date: Wed Mar 3 15:34:02 2021 +0000

Improved epub package

Epub now works in fbreader and 'book reader'. Sigil recognises at least the main metadata.

There we go. March this year I had a working, if slightly buggy, ebook. I built it up from scratch pretty much, poring over the specifications for the different files that get zipped together to make an epub. I typed some of them, and wrote little gawk programs to generate others from the main book file – the navigation (contents) is done this way. Sadly this was a version 3.2 epub, and I would later discover I had to downgrade it to version 3.0 for the distributor. The developers have made some real improvements for version 3.2, not least to the documentation.

Another big pass of editing took me into April, which is also when I started work on this website. Around the end of April is when I got the first advance copies printed. Which led to another pass of editing – there are just things that pop out on a printed page that I wasn't seeing on my screen. I took the old school approach of going through the text with a red pencil.

It was around then I started getting anxiety attacks. Between my fear of exposing the book to the public, my fear of failure, my fear of getting back out after lockdown and my frustration with online dating, it all got a bit much for me for a while. I had planned to release the book in the Summer but I postponed it to November, cut back on the online dating – no new contacts for a while at least – and concentrated on reconnecting with friends and generally getting myself back into the world. It felt terrible at the time to delay the release but it was the right decision.

Now I've had problems with social anxiety before, so I at least had the confidence that if I'd beat it once, I could beat it again. I'm nervous about the book's release, but not terrified. Even if it doesn't earn me a fortune I can never say it has been a total failure. I have created a book that I'm proud of and learned a whole lot along the way. I may be a long way from matching my wildest dreams about pre-sales and media buzz, but people who see the book often want to buy it, so it could still be a sleeper hit. Who knows? I won't be giving up on it any time soon.

I shall be visiting Bridport literary festival over the next couple of days. Then I'll push on and finish the large print version. Sorry if anyone's waiting for it, it won't be out at the same time as the paperback, as I had hoped. I still need to get some feedback on a few things that aren't covered by the guides I've read. Then when the inside is finished I'll need to create the cover file. It might take a week, but if you've read this far you know how over-optimistic I can be about how quickly I'll finish a book.

Preordering on the high street, availability of the ebook, and progress on the large print version.

Yesterday I listed some of the web sites where you can preorder the book. This morning I went into town to see how easy it is to order the book from my local book shop. It turned out to be even easier than searching for it online. Once I got over the anxiety that preordering my own book was somehow illicit, I asked at the counter. With only the title of the book they found it on their system within a few seconds, with the cover on the screen and everything. I was rumbled when they asked for my name and they were too kind to want to sell a copy to the author, but I'll be surprised if you have any difficulty supporting your local book store by ordering the book there.

So what if you want to preorder the ebook? I uploaded an epub edition to Ingram Spark for them to convert into various media types for different ebook reader apps and devices.

Ingram should be making the ebook available through many other retailers. I already spotted the kobo version yesterday on a canadian website, chapters/indigo, when I was looking for the paperback. As you might expect then, it's also available on the kobo website . I imagine you can preorder direct from your Kobo device, but I don't have the kit to test that.

Sorry to say that the ebook will not be available through Amazon's ebook store. They will only sell the book if they are given an extra discount over the competition. What this would mean in practice is putting the list price of the book up so that everyone who doesn't buy through Amazon would have to pay more. That just doesn't seem like fair business to me so I have declined their contract. If Amazon want to offer the ebook they'll just have to accept the same deal as everyone else. I have read that the epub edition can be “sideloaded” on to the Kindle Fire, but I'm not sure about other versions of the Kindle.

I'm not too sure about Apple iTunes either. Again they expect a separate deal to other companies. I haven't seen anything too objectionable about it, but neither have I found the time to read and make sense of their contract. There are apps for iPhones and iPads to read epub ebooks.

There is an epub version available to preorder from eBooks.com. The distributor will have encrypted it with DRM , but it should work through a web browser or one of the following devices:

You might also be able to preorder directly through some of those devices. I'm not seeing it on Google Play yet and I don't own an ebook reader. I'm old fashioned in some ways and I like the printed book. Then again it has been nice having pre-release versions on my phone for almost-any-time almost-any-place reference.

Update on the large print version

I haven't forgotten about this, it's just taking time. I've got a rough version ready with 18 point sans serif font (TeX Gyre Heros), bold or regular text and no italics, underlining or smallcaps, wide margins on larger pages, ragged-right block paragraphs with no first-line indents, no hyphenation (there's none in the standard edition either), and thicker lines between sections. I'm looking at printing it as an A4 hardback on cream paper.

There is still more to do though. I think the hand written example score sheets in the standard paperback will need to be replaced with printed tables for the large print. I've enlarged the illustrations in the shuffling section, but I need to consider how they will look on cream paper and seek some feedback on whether partially sighted people can make sense of them.

Finally I need to “jiggle things around” so that fewer paragraphs and lists get split awkwardly between pages. ConTeXt did a pretty good job of placing them automatically for the standard edition, but with such large text and all the extra whitespace I'm getting about half as many words on the page. That's making ConTeXt struggle – perhaps I can save myself some time by giving it more leeway to put extra whitespace between paragraphs, but I may just need to insert page breaks manually.

None of this should stop me getting the large print version ready by the November 16th release date, but it will be a little while yet before you can preorder it.

Preorder now

Social card games is now available to preorder. I took a look around the web today and found preorders open on the sites listed below. I expect others will join them soon.

You should be able to preorder through your local independent or chain bookshop too, the ISBN will help there: 978-1-9168759-1-3. I'll be trying this out tomorrow to see how easy it is at my local book shop.

So here are some links for those that want to preorder online:

United Kingdom
USA
Australia

Note: if you preorder through amazon.com.au then check the seller options. At time of writing the default is to order the book from Amazon US, but there is already a seller offering to sell it from within Australia. Ingram will print the book in Australia, so there is no need to pay extra to import it.

Book finished – to be released 16th November

I don't know if these times are as anxiety provoking for you as they have been for me, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who found coming out of lockdown hard this time. I had intended to put a lot more effort into drumming up publicity for this book but that was just heaping stress on top of stress. So I guess this book is going out with no more fanfare than I can rustle up in the next month and a bit.

It's not all bad news though – the book is finally finished. I have been going through an advance copy looking for any remaining errors, inconsistencies and unclear explanations. It's amazing how much leaps out from the printed page that I just wasn't seeing on my computer screen. Then I needed to rewrite the preface as a lot has happened since I drafted one back in April. Finally I had to fix the back cover – the line spacing in the blurb just looked horrible and it was time to remove the ARC label.

I was quite pleased with the look and feel of the advance copy. The matte finish on the cover looks almost like my hand drawings. The pages seem glued in securely – I gave the spine a good tug and bent it back and it doesn't seem like pages are going to be falling out like they did on some of my old University textbooks and computer manuals. The typography looks good to me too – the way the text is laid out on the pages.

There were issues here and there with a couple of lines sticking out into the margins and a few things being split onto separate pages that I wanted to keep together. But only a handful of manual interventions were necessary – ConTeXt has done a pretty good job in spite of me switching off hyphenation. With the microtype features of TeX Gyre fonts it was able to automatically tweak not only the space between words but also the letter spacing and even the shape of letters. None of that should be too obvious as you read the book, but it has made it possible to never split a word across two lines – something I've always found quite ugly. I have much less control with the ebook, which will appear very differently depending on the reading device and software, and on the readers settings. Many ebook readers will ignore my CSS entirely.

There is now a press kit containing a quick summary of the books metadata, followed by several lengths of book description and author bio, a sample Q&A and the contents list from the book. The sample has been updated too.

PS – I realise the contact form for the mailing list I promised still hasn't materialised. To be honest I just haven't looked at the web site for a while. Once I'm sure the book is properly set up for pre orders I will take another look at it, apologies if that is too late for this book. There's always the atom feed.

Delays and progress.

Three weeks since my last post, and three excuses:

  1. Covid restrictions are easing in the UK. This has meant giving myself the odd day off to reconnect with friends and family, since we're not all getting together at big weekend gatherings just yet.
  2. Storms. Lots of little thunderstorms have been passing over Dorset the last few days, leading to lots of little power cuts. The electricity only goes for a few seconds but with no UPS it's made working on the website or uploading big files to the distributor awkward.
  3. Writing my own form handler program. Alright so this was my choice and not really an excuse, but I have spent quite a bit of time trying to get a little web server to cooperate with my main one (nginx). More on this at the bottom of this post.

I have now uploaded the interior and cover files for the paperback edition to Ingram Spark. The files passed the automated checks – second time – so now I just need to wait for someone there to have a quick look at them manually. Then it'll be my turn to check their eproof – sort of a print preview. After that I'll be getting a physical test copy mailed to myself before I start sending out advance copies to potential reviewers and retailers. The final version is still subject to change, depending on the feedback I receive.

The interior file is generated from the ebook in three stages. First a simple program I wrote back in January converts the xhtml to conTeXt. Then some free and open source software called GraphicsMagick scales down the scans of the illustrations. Finally the conTeXt program – also free and open source – generates a pdf from these half-way files. The upshot of this is that the ebook is essentially ready too. If I need to change the print edition I'll do so by changing the ebook first.

I might also need to add more accessibility features to the ebook. Not everyone will display it as text on a screen and read it with their eyes. A good ebook needs to be read out by screen reader software too. I've made a good start on this, but I'll be looking for online guides to see if there's more I can do. Perhaps this website needs some work on accessibility too? I've been relying on simplicity and HTML5 markup so far, but I'll read the WCAG standards soon, to see how I shape up.

The large print edition could be generated from the ebook in a similar way, but it will probably be easier to work from the conTeXt file from the smaller paperback. Hopefully it will be as simple as changing the page size and making the font a nice 18pt sans serif like TeX Gyre Heros. I can enlarge the illustrations too, or rather shrink them less. But I'll need to check through for awkward page breaks and other such problems too.

The form handler for the website is nearly done, I think. It works okay on my PC at home, I just need to get it to run on the virtual server I'm renting and to restart if it fails for any reason. I know roughly what that entails on the GNU Guix operating system I'm using, but I haven't quite managed to get it working yet. It's written in Guile Scheme, the same language that Guix is configured with, so this approach has the potential to be quite an elegant solution. I may be able to define the web app and configure the operating system it runs on in one small file. If I get it working nicely I'll share the code and write a technical post about how it works.

But I don't want this blog to be all about IT for publishers. In Britain we are now allowed to meet indoors in small groups, which means I won't have to wait for the wind to die down to get a few friends together for a game of sum-run-set or some other card game from the book. I shall let you know how that goes.

Much still to be done.

If the book ‘Social card games’ already exists then why isn't it out yet? It does exist – I have both eBook and ready-to print advance versions on my PC and I'll be uploading them to IngramSpark very soon. In fact here's a sneak peak: sample.pdf. However, I've spent much of the last two weeks coming to terms with how much work still lies ahead.

The number one piece of advice I received when people found out I was writing a book was this: “don't even think about selling it until it's finished.” Now that I'm reading about how to sell it I keep seeing that advice listed on lists of what not to do – or of advice to ignore. I'm still not sure who's right about that. If I hadn't waited I could have started sending advance copies out about two months ago, but psychologically there is a lot to be said for breaking a problem down into smaller pieces. If publicising the book made me feel overwhelmed then that might have gotten in the way of finishing it.

There's not much point in ruminating about that now though. With this experience behind me publicity will be a much earlier consideration for my next book, but I'll never know for sure which route would have lead to an earlier or more successful release for this one. Much better to look forward – so how's my todo list looking?

Create a mailing list
You can already subscribe to the blog feed, but soon I'll make news available by email too.
Set a release date
I'm thinking late August or early September but I shall have to commit to a date soon.
Press kit
I need to add a page to this website to help any other writers who want to write about me or the book. Author bios, portrait photos, book description and metadata – everything they might want to reference in one convenient place. In time it should also be a place to collect testimonials, press cuttings, and to list any awards.
Upload to IngramSpark
The standard paperback version and the eBook will be first to upload, with a large print paperback planned later.
Press releases
If a site is put on the web and no one comes to see it, does it make things public? SEO can only get you so far – what search engines really look for is pages that are already well known enough to be linked to. There are media outlets out there that might well be interested in this book, in post-lockdown socialising, in traditional pastimes or in writing and publishing using FOSS. They can't ask me if they don't know I exist.
Send out advance copies
Which of course involves deciding who to send them to.
Offer pre-purchases
Pre-purchasing will be a great way to support the book. Not just sales but a sign of people's interest that might boost the confidence of book stores.
Format large print
I had planned to offer a large print edition in 9" × 13.5", which would have the same content on each page as the standard edition. But that trim size is no longer available on IngramSpark – did I imagine it? So I shall have to pick a new size, 8.25" × 11" perhaps, and let the page count increase.
Secure .com and .co.uk domains?
There are other Ken Huttons out there but right now there is no page at kenhutton.co.uk and my browser gives security warnings if I try to go to kenhutton.com. I shall send a query to the registrar that sold the domains. Nothing wrong with kenhutton.uk, but I don't like the idea of readers being misled if they type the wrong address.

Then of course there are the unknown unknowns, things I will need to do that haven't occurred to me yet. But that's already plenty to be getting on with.

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New book ‘Social card games’ coming soon.

Playing cards have been a part of many people's social lives since childhood. You might have played with your parents or with friends at school. Card games for many of us are familiar, even nostalgic. Those that are not raised on such games can be surprised later in life when a pack of cards is introduced to the table and everyone else just seems to know how to shuffle without dropping the cards and the rules to a dozen or more games. Whether you're looking for new games, reminders of the classics or you're just curious what all the fuss is about, Social card games will serve as a guide to 42 of the best card games to play with friends and family.

Beginning with the simple children's game of snap, new rules and concepts are introduced one or two at a time so that each game is quick and easy to learn. The complexity builds up as you progress through the book but if you have played the earlier games then nothing here will feel too complicated as you play. The games have been chosen carefully so that none of them is likely to bring conversation to a standstill and none of them require gambling or drinking to make them fun.

It is a simple matter to carry a deck or two of cards in your pocket, handbag or luggage. Even if you forget them you will have to go some distance to get away from any store that would sell you some and further still before you couldn't get a deck delivered. Many games are easy to teach to new players, even past a language barrier. It is little wonder then that card games are so popular with backpackers and other travellers, or that so many of us remember holidays that have been salvaged from bad weather by a deck of cards. I might even go so far as to say that knowing a few good card games is a valuable life-skill.

Many of these games are classics, some from the author's home nation of England and others from around the world. A few new games have been designed and are being presented for the first time in this book.

In addition to all this, the book contains:

  • Compendium matches in which a score is kept across several different card games to add variety to a session of play.
  • Short league formats to extend the number of players that can play many of the games – or just mix up the teams in a fixed partnership game.
  • Advice on keeping score with pen and paper, counters or cribbage boards.
  • Descriptions and illustrations of shuffling techniques.

Social card games is coming soon. Watch this space for further news.