Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Stealing it and giving it away

Book2book today draws attention to an article in the Independent about copyright theft.

Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has announced that the UK Government will launch a national strategy to combat the theft of intellectual property.

The figures quoted by Hewitt are quite impressive. The 'creative' industries -- which in this context apparently include music, film, design, publishing, computer games and architecture -- are big revenue earners. They employ 2 million people in the UK, account for about 8% of output, and contribute £11.4bn to the balance of trade. And, of course, although Ms Hewitt doesn't actually mention it, they provide lots of tax revenue for the Government, which they can then spend on really useful things like the war in Iraq.

Trouble is, of course, lots of this intellectual property and hence revenue is being pinched, which means that the Government isn't getting its fair share, so obviously that can't be allowed. Hence the initiative to wipe out piracy. Ms Hewitt estimates that 7% of the world's trade is accounted for by counterfeit goods.

Well, yes. All of that is certainly true on the macro level, and the drive for ever tighter copyright protection is being driven, as usual, by big business, which simply hates losing so much as a penny.

On the other hand, there may not be quite the same need for concern on the micro level. When drafting this post I remembered once reading an article by an American woman who was a singer, and she produced convincing evidence that, as far as her career was concerned, she actually benefited from allowing free downloads of her recordings. Through the miracle of Google I was actually able to find this article again. It's by one Janis Ian, who has nine times been nominated for a Grammy award, and it's an interesting read. What Janis has found is that people who can hear her stuff for free are much more likely to buy her CDs and tickets for her concerts.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Janis Ian has abandoned the major recording labels because sticking with them involved a loss of artistic control. It is also worth noting that her article may not be all that difficult to find because (according to her biography) it is posted on 5,000 web sites in all. So maybe someone actually agrees with her.

Reverting to the book world, it is fairly well known that Cory Doctorow, whom I mentioned only yesterday, found that it paid him to give away electronic copies of his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow allowed distribution of his book under a Creative Commons licence, which meant that readers were allowed to read the book for nothing, and then copy it and send it to a friend if they wished. In the first ten days after Down and Out was published, 50,000 copies were downloaded. Far from damaging sales of the printed book, which emerged at the same time, this process seems to have acted as a valuable advertisement. Doctorow reports that his publishers do not regret the decision to use a Creative Commons licence.

This 'giving it away for free' strategy does not always work, however. There is a novelist called Jon Wright who also offers his work as a free download. I had some email correspondence with him a while back, and at that stage Jon's free book had found just three readers. Though things may have improved a bit since then.

Which leads me to my final point, which is that this very blog, the GOB itself, is also made available under the terms of a Creative Commons licence -- see the little logo at the bottom of the sidebar. What this means is that you are free to copy and distribute any part of this blog, provided you identify me as the author of it. What you can't do is take my work and sell it for your own commercial advantage -- not, at any rate without agreeing terms with me. Neither can you 'alter, transform, or build upon' the work without asking my permission.

Yes, I know that very few of you would want to do any of these things, but that's the position if, by any chance, you do. And it is rather different from the tight-arsed attitude which is embodied in traditional copyright law, observance of every letter of which is insisted upon by the paranoid writers of this world on the one hand, and, of course, big business on the other. The big business representatives would no doubt tell us that you gotta look after the bottom line. Which is true. But it turns out that there is more than one way of doing it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Literature versus trash and other myths of the modern age

The Reading Experience provides a link to an article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The article is by one Daniel Stolar, and it describes the hard times which he experienced while trying to arouse interest in his book of short stories, The Middle of the Night. (The book was published by Picador in the USA.)

Now.... As far as possible in this blog, I try to avoid anything which might be thought of as ad hominem criticism. So I will try, in this particular post, not to write anything which might be thought of as a comment on, and especially not an attack on, Mr Stolar personally; he evidently has enough on his mind already. Instead, I will use his article as the starting point for posing a number of questions, to which I will then provide answers, together with some comments.

But first, what does Stolar have to say?

It turns out that Stolar's book (a collection of eight short stories, mostly set in his home town of St Louis) was published about a year ago. After initial interest from his agent, editor, and publicist, it turned out that the publisher was not going to organise a major author tour or get him on the Oprah Winfrey show, so he set out to drum up his own publicity in his home town. And he was quite successful. He got himself interviewed by lots of newspapers, contacted everybody he could think of, and then, to his apparent amazement, discovered that local bookshops weren't remotely interested in him. Or his book. All they were interested in was organising publicity for the forthcoming Harry Potter.

Stolar himself now seems fairly resigned to this state of affairs, but he nevertheless tells the story as if the reception that he and his book were given was somehow surprising, and also, somehow, inappropriate; because, as he points out, the book was published by a major New York firm. And he was a local boy. His parents were quite well known in the city.

Ah well.

Here are the questions and comments which this situation brings to my mind. They are couched, as far as possible, in general terms and, to repeat, are not intended to reflect directly upon Mr Stolar.

Point 1:

It is not unusual to find that authors are surprised and upset when no one takes any notice of their newly published book. But why are they surprised? And do they have any sensible reason for being upset?

Answers: Authors are surprised by this kind of reception only if they know next to nothing about the book business. And I am surprised -- well, no, not surprised, but disappointed -- disappointed that any young writer could possibly be dumb enough to imagine that anybody would take any notice. Such a reaction can only be based on a profound ignorance of the facts.

Here in England we have over 2,000 new books published every week. Every week! Of these, about 10% are fiction. That's 200 novels (plus a few collections of short stories) every week. Or roughly 30 a day. Newspapers review about 10% of these. Maybe. Is it surprising that no one takes any notice?

As for being upset.... Again, this can only be the result of ignorance, or an amazingly high (and unjustified) opinion of one's own importance in the general scheme of things. Booksellers, believe it or not, have a business to run. They have a payroll to meet at the end of the week. They have mortgages to pay and children to feed. Of course the bookseller is going to concentrate on Harry Potter! Hellfire, the UK paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out on 21 June this year, and it sold 1.7m copies on that day alone! Yes, 1.7 million. That will go a long way towards helping to pay quite a lot of mortgages, not to mention buying burgers and fish fingers for the kids. But a book of short stories from a literary publisher? Oh, please. You cannot be serious.

Point 2:

It is common to find that literary authors look down on what sells and dismiss it as 'puerile', 'worthless' and 'trash'. How do they come to believe such things? And are their views justified?

Answers: It is, regrettably, abundantly clear why literary authors come to believe that there is a distinction between 'good books' on the one hand and 'worthless trash' on the other.

They believe this because they have mostly taken degrees in English literature. And for three or four years they have sat and listened to lecturers propounding these half-baked ideas. And because the students have never understood that the main purpose of education is to learn how to question and test the value of what you are told, they have accepted their lecturers' arguments without, apparently, a moment's thought.

Judging by the evidence on the internet, Eng. Lit. graduates emerge from university not so much educated as damaged. They venture out into the real world, blinking furiously from the light, and reveal to us all that they suffer from three major delusions. They are deluded about (a) the nature of literature, (b) the function of publishers and booksellers, and (c) the extent of their own talent as a writer.

A modicum of thought on the part of Eng. Lit. students and graduates would reveal that much of what passes for the received wisdom in Eng. Lit. is, to put it as politely as possible, a load of old balls. It is intellectual snobbery of the worst possible kind, without any sound foundation. (If you want more detailed argument, see chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing.)

And how does it come about, you may reasonably ask, that the Eng. Lit. lecturers come to be teaching all these things? Well, because it's a lot easier to go along with the established party line than it is to question it. If you're a lecturer/professor in say, a liberal-arts college somewhere in the mid-west, or the UK midlands equivalent, it's a lot more profitable to sit deadly still than to start rocking the boat. If you just do the safe thing -- teach what everybody else teaches, and publish a paper on the number of commas in Wordsworth from time to time -- then no one will question your tenure. But if you start to wonder whether there is any point to your existence at all, and the existence of many more like you, then all of a sudden you're going to become very unpopular indeed.

Point 3:

What should writers do in order to avoid the kind of heartache which arises when you publish a book and no one takes a blind bit of notice?

Answer: If you are thinking of writing a book, it would surely be a good idea to learn a little bit about the modern book trade. Read the Bookseller for a year or two, or Publishers Weekly if you're an American. Read a few books on the business. That's what books are for! They encapsulate forty years of experience into a couple of hundred pages. Jason Epstein's Book Business is a classic example.

If you, dear reader, take the time to find out a bit about the book business, in advance of writing your book, will probably save yourself a great deal of time and trouble. For a start, you will very quickly realise that there's no money in it; that your chances of being reviewed in any major journal are somewhere between slim and zero, and Slim just left town; and that reviews do not necessarily translate into sales, or anything else of much value.

If you must write short stories, or a novel, put the damn thing on the internet, for free. If it's any good, in terms of producing emotion in the reader, word will spread fast enough, you can be sure of that -- ask Cory Doctorow. And if you can find 50,000 readers or so, and prove that you’ve entertained them, then you won’t have to go looking for a publisher, because a whole gang of them will undoubtedly come rushing up the path to your door.

But please, please, don't bleat to me about what a crime it is that bookshops won't stock your literary masterpiece.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Rimington revealed

On 23 March I noted that Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, had 'written a novel', to be published in June. There were, I said, two possibilities in relation to this book. One, that she had written it herself, in which case it wasn't likely to be much good (because, whatever other talents she may possess, she is not an experienced novelist). And two, that she had had it written for her, in which case it might well be better.

Yesterday's Sunday Times carries two references to the Rimington opus, At Risk, which has just been published. Richard Brooks's 'Biteback' column reports that the book 'has an acknowledgement to the novelist and ballet critic Luke Jennings', and adds, 'I wonder how much help he gave.'

A few pages later, we have a review of the book itself, which goes further. The reviewer says bluntly that 'Rimington's memoirs were notoriously soporific but here (thanks perhaps to her collaborator Luke Jennings) the writing is lively'.

So, maybe between them Rimington and Jennings have written a halfway entertaining book. Jennings certainly has the necessary talent as a writer -- see the readers' reviews of Beauty Story on Amazon, for instance -- and Rimington has the espionage expertise, so it looks like a sensible combination of skills. And they both share the same publisher, Hutchinson, who may have effected the introduction.

In case you sense any disapproval of the ghosting process on my part, let me say that it is a form of collaboration of which I wholeheartedly approve, even if the 'author' does no more than lend his or her name to the project. We live in a celebrity-obsessed age, and a novel of x quality plus famous name will go a lot further than a novel of x quality on its own.

Furthermore, there are some ghosted books which are excellent. Take, for instance, Geri Halliwell's first 'autobiography', If Only. This was written for her by a man. I once knew his name, but have forgotten it. Anyway, you only have to read the first page and a half of that book to know that he is a professional.

Another ghosted book of good quality is Baptism of Fire by Frank Collins. The nominal author of this was an SAS man who participated in the operation to release the hostages held in the Iranian Embassy. Subsequently, and rather to his own surprise, he became a Church of England clergyman. Collins's story was written for him by a woman -- and a woman who did not believe in God, at that. Unfortunately Collins's story did not end happily. He committed suicide.

Mark Lucas acted as agent for both of those ghosted books.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

The amazing efficiency of the British book trade

Just over a week ago -- Thursday 17 June to be precise -- I said that the British book trade was, in general, not very well managed. And you may, just conceivably, have thought that I was painting the picture a little too black. That I was, so to speak, over-egging the pudding. Surely, you might well have said to yourself, things are not as bad as all that. We all do our best in difficult circumstances. Life is not easy. How unfair it is then, of that grumpy fellow with the long hair, to criticise those who are working hard to put books into our hands.

Well, my dears, I didn't tell you the half of it. Only yesterday I was compelled to remind you that Dorling Kindersley printed 10 million too many copies of their Star Wars books, and pretty much went bust as a result. And today comes further news of the -- ahem -- minor difficulties at Penguin.

Book2book, aka booktrade info, gives us a link to a report in Publishing News (PN). This gives further details of the problems which Penguin UK has been having with the new computer system in its book-distribution centre. These problems have been known about for some time, but, as is fairly typical in the book world, have been muttered about in fairly hushed tones, on the general principle of there but for the grace of God...

The problem, in short, is that the new software doesn't work, or cannot be made to work. This means that Penguin cannot supply books to booksellers -- not, at any rate, through its brand new, much improved, state of the art system. It can only get books to booksellers by using blokes to pick 'em out by hand, just as they used to do in the nineteenth century.

And, so far, the loss to Penguin is estimated at somewhere between £20m and £30m.

Now, the thing is this, see. This is not the first time that the book trade has had this kind of problem. A firm called Tiptree had very similar difficulties ten years ago. You can read the grisly details here. According to PN, Littlehampton was another company which also 'came to grief for much the same reasons.' And I seem to remember yet another book distribution company which went bust as a result of a software debacle, but I won't name it here in case I am misremembering.

Penguin have this week despatched a senior executive to brief the three big firms of authors' agents, one of whom says, 'It's a nightmare.'

And what, I hear you asking, what of the poor bloody infantry? Has anyone devoted a moment's thought to them? Well, it seems that Penguin authors who go into bookshops, looking for their new books, are being told that they ain't there and aren't likely to be there for some time. But don't worry! Penguin is planning to write to their authors. Soon. To explain the situation. So that's all right then. The authors aren't likely to worry about the loss of a little income -- they only do the job because of a deep-seated love of literature.

Oh, and by the way. PN also reports that Penguin got 'little change for a million pounds' when the firm bought rights to Rageh Omaar's Revolution Day, a book which has so far sold a disappointing 25,000 copies. Disappointing, that, is, if you've paid a million for it.

Like I always say, publishing fair takes your breath away. Never a week goes by without I sit here having to pick my jaw up from somewhere near the floor.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Star Wars: success and failure

The Literary Saloon draws attention to an article in USA Today on what the Lit. Saloon calls the 'baffling' success of the various Star Wars books.

It is nearly thirty years, apparently, since Del Rey books (in the USA) first published a spinoff novel based on George Lucas's 'wildly popular' Star Wars films. The estimate from Lucas Licensing is that there are now some 65 million Star Wars books in print. And Del Rey has just signed a deal to go on doing much the same thing until the end of 2008.

The USA Today article gives the impression that the Star Wars books have been 'consistent best sellers' and that they constitute a totally dependable source of income.

Well, yes, and then again, no.

It is not so long ago since a British publisher had a nasty accident in this particular minefield. In 2000, Dorling Kindersley found itself in severe financial trouble because in the previous year it had overestimated the likely demand for its series of publications related to Star Wars. DK was left with -- ahem -- some 10 million unsold books. And in the six-month period to 31 December 1999 the firm ran up a loss of £25m.

Now it is not uncommon for publishers to be too optimistic about the likely sales of a given book. But to print 10 million copies too many? Seems a bit excessive, wouldn’t you say? The Chairman of company later complained that no one had told him about this large print order.

The outcome was that DK had to be sold to Penguin. Job losses: 350. Also affected were 14,000 people in the UK, and 40,000 worldwide, who were employed as part-time agents for DK products.

So, yes, Star Wars is indeed a nice little earner. But, as ever in publishing, you have to get your sums right.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Boccaccio and all that

Last week I was in Eastbourne, where I took the opportunity to visit Camilla’s secondhand bookshop.

Camilla’s (probably no relation) is one of the more extraordinary shops of its kind. You enter on the ground floor (obviously), and then you can go either down to a basement or up to another floor. But you move only with great difficulty, and at considerable risk to life and limb. Each floor is packed and stacked with books. I can’t imagine how it has escaped the attentions of the health and safety people, not to mention the fire authorities. On the ground floor the books must go twelve feet up the wall, and you can’t even read the titles of the ones on the top shelf without a ladder.

But enough of the written description: you can see a view of the shop here.

Among the books I bought was the autobiography of Peter Carter-Ruck, the famous libel lawyer, and of that more when I’ve read it. But I also saw (without buying) a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book which I have been meaning to write about for a while.

For the benefit of those who have suffered from a modern education, I suppose I had better describe what the Decameron is, though once upon a time everyone likely to read the book page of a magazine or newspaper, or a blog such as this, would have absorbed it along with the two-times table.

Boccaccio was an Italian, a citizen of Florence, who lived in the fourteenth century. The Decameron is a work of fiction, and in it he describes how, in 1348, ten young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague. They go out into the countryside, and while they wait for it to be safe to return home they amuse themselves by each telling a story a day for the ten days that they are required to remain there. This gives us, in effect, 100 short stories.

The stories tell of love, adventure and surprising twists of fate. They are frequently anticlerical, describing the monks and nuns of the day as lecherous, greedy, and lazy -- which was probably a pretty fair description. Overall, the Decameron is generally reckoned to be one of the masterpieces of European literature, matching, for instance, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I have already mentioned once in this blog that, in 1954, magistrates in Swindon, Wiltshire (hardly a stronghold of culture) ordered the confiscation and destruction of copies of this book, on the grounds that it was obscene.

Well, obscene is putting it a bit strong. Racy, certainly. And the magistrates may have been misled, poor innocent and trusting souls, by the illustrations. Some editions of the book have provided rather ‘stronger’ illustrations than others, but naked ladies have been known to appear.

Which is really what I meant to write about. When I was a lad, all those years ago, I was an assistant to the Librarian at Queens’ College, Cambridge, a post which gave me access to the inner sanctum of the library. This was a room where particularly rare and valuable books were stored; and there, tucked away on a shelf, well out of sight of the impressionable young gentlemen, was a nineteenth-century edition of the Decameron. It came in two volumes, and was enhanced by some particularly saucy engravings. The pictures were all good clean fun, and pretty mild even by the standards of the 1950s, but some earlier librarian had felt it his moral duty (a) to buy a copy and read it, but (b) to hide it from those less able than himself to cope with the moral temptations which it embodied. It may have been a copy of this edition, complete with naughty pictures, which the magistrates of Swindon considered far too dangerous to be viewed by society at large.

Anyway, forty years later I wandered into a pub here in darkest Wiltshire, and I noticed that some new pictures had been placed on the walls. I approached closer, and found, to my amusement, that some enterprising interior decorator, intent upon giving the pub a little atmosphere, had sliced several of these very same Decameron pictures out of some tatty copy of the book (probably abandoned in a skip) and had had them prettily framed before popping them on to the walls. And very nice they were too. Perhaps one customer in 10,000 would recognise them for what they were.

Pasolini directed a film based on the Decameron in 1970, using, as I recall, amateur actors drawn from the rural backwaters. I don’t remember finding it all that striking a film, and my chief memory of it is that the actors all seemed to have remarkably bad teeth. Perhaps Pasolini was making a point of some kind.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Educayshun for beginners

Yesterday I happened to be reading Margery Allingham’s last book (of which more later). It was published in 1965, and she describes, in passing, the post-war rebirth of London. Round the city’s knees, she says, ‘the educated children shot up like towers, full of the future.’ The general tenor of this passage is that the young are no longer ignorant like what they used to was, and that henceforth enlightenment will brighten all our paths.

Well, I guess in 1965 it was still just about possible to believe in education. There were still grammar schools, for instance. As a matter of fact, I was teaching in one in that year. Now, however, such faith is much harder to justify.

Margery’s comment struck a chord with me because in Monday’s post about bitterness (see below) I referred to Santham Sanghera. Before mentioning his name I was obliged to do a Google search to establish Santham’s gender (a matter on which, it turns out, it is easy to become confused), and I came across a post by Heath Row on Fast Company.

Heath Row took young Santham to task for admitting that he had never heard of Tom Peters, and offered the following advice: ‘You work for the Financial Times. A respected international business newspaper. If you don't know who someone like Peters is, you might not want to admit it in print.’

I must say I had to agree with that. Hell, even I know who Tom Peters is, and I don’t even work in industry or commerce. (You can’t class publishing as either; it’s more in the nature of a fiasco). But I wasn’t remotely surprised by Santham’s ignorance. It is not too long since I had reason to speak to the chief public-relations officer of a major city council, located at a point rather less than a thousand miles from where I sit. In the course of our discussion I discovered that this young lady (a university graduate, naturally) had no idea what an alderman was.

Both these young people, Santham and the p.r. person, are victims of what these days passes for an education. Come to think of it, they probably both read Eng. Lit. At Oxford.

If it’s any comfort -- and I suspect it isn’t much -- the position is no better in the United States. In his book on scriptwriting, Michael Straczynski describes how in one TV script he made passing reference to a certain Ahab. The producer wanted to know who this Ahab guy was. Straczynski explained, patiently, that this was a literary reference, and that Captain Ahab was a character in quite a well known novel, Moby Dick.

The producer was unimpressed. ‘Well, I’ve got an MBA, and I’ve never heard of Ahab, and if I’ve never heard of him, nobody else has either, so take it out.’

And so, says Straczynski, it went.

Not, I hasten to add, that I have read Moby Dick either, or have any plans to do so, but you take, I hope, my point. There is no longer any common frame of reference, not even for people who have undergone a so-called education.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


I finally got around to seeing the film Possession. The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name by A.S. Byatt.

It was Al Zuckerman who originally recommended the novel Possession to me, back in 1994, and Al is absolutely no slouch when it comes to identifying a good book. So I bought a copy at JFK and started to read it on the flight home.

For those who haven't come across it, Possession tells a tale of two academics (Eng. Lit. specialists, God help us all) who are researching the secret love life of two fictional Victorian poets. And our two protagonists, one being male and one female, naturally proceed to have a love affair all of their own. The drama, such as it is, arises from wondering whether the two protagonists will beat another group of academics (baddies to the core) in a race to find out the truth about what really happened, all those years ago.

Now, theoretically, this book ought to have interested me, because the Victorian period is my favourite era, and I am very interested in at least one Victorian poet, namely Algernon Charles Swinburne. Why then was I not more enthusiastic?

The clue lies in the fact that Possession won the Booker prize in 1990. It is highly unlikely, other things being equal, that I am going to be overwhelmed by anything with that sort of literary pedigree.

The book runs to some 500 pages and I found it rather hard going. Judging by the comments on Amazon, I am not alone. Even those readers who gave it 5 stars were forced to admit that it 'can be a bit heavy at times.' Another Amazon critic only gave it one star and described it as 'dull, pretentious, and not half as clever as it thinks it is.' Hmm, well, it wasn't as bad as all that.

Anyway, I was sufficiently interested in the book to want to see the movie, which originally came out in 2002. It is directed by Neil LaBute and stars Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.

Well, the movie held my attention, for what that's worth, but I did wonder how it ever came to be made. Surely no one in Hollywood could possibly have mistaken this for a money-spinner? OK, it's romantic, up to a point: there are two parallel love stories running through it, one which ends tragically and one which ends on a hopeful note. But, er, that's about it. It's well written and well acted. I doubt, however, that it took more than tuppence ha'penny at the box office. About the time it came out, I found myself in conversation with one of the staff at the production company involved, and this person wondered aloud to me just who exactly was going to see the film. That's a good question, but surely it's the sort of thing you think about before you invest a few million dollars rather than after?

Anyway, there it is. The film is something of a departure for Neil LaBute, I would guess. LaBute is an American, and previously he had only come to my attention as a playwright. He wrote a play called The Distance from Here, which I saw at the Theatre Royal, Bath. It was supposed to be the latest hot thing, the new Shopping and Fucking, so to speak, but it attracted an audience of about 30 in a theatre which holds about 900.

The Distance from Here features characters who are about as far removed from Eng. Lit. academics and Victorian poets as it is possible to imagine, namely a group of moronic misfits living in an inner city US slum. (I seem to remember it was Brooklyn.) The language, as one reviewer put it, was American youthspeak. Oh, and the big dramatic moment was when one or two of these moronic youths murdered a baby.

Well, I'm sorry, but I remained resolutely unshocked and unmoved by this scene. To make us care about characters like that you need actors of the calibre of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh (you will recall, no doubt, A Streetcar name Desire). And on the night when I saw Mr LaBute's play his cast was competent but not in the Brando/Leigh league.

So, Possession, whether in Ms Byatt's version or Mr LaBute's, does not fill me with astonishment and joy. And what really depressed me, of course, was the reminder that there really are academics who fill their day by researching the lives of Victorian poets. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se. I myself have done some minor research on Swinburne, and I am thanked for it on the acknowledgements page of the poet's latest biography. But I did it all in my spare time, as an amateur, and not as a full-time academic, paid (as they so often are in the UK) very largely at the taxpayers' expense.

What is even more depressing, of course, is the thought that there are lots of young people who have been brainwashed into thinking that studying Eng. Lit. at a university, for three or four of the best years of their lives, is a useful and productive way to spend their time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very process of reading novels is about as adult as sucking your thumb, and studying them full-time is unproductive to say the least. The only more futile form of study that I can think of is spending a year (and lots of money) on a creative-writing course.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Bitter coincidence

Last Friday I wrote a piece about copyright problems (see immediately below), and I ended up by pointing out that a writing 'career' can all too easily lead to anger, bitterness, and frustration. By pure coincidence, the next day's Financial Times featured an article by Sathnam Sanghera which dealt extensively with the psychological and physiological complications which can arise from a state of bitterness. (I would normally have provided a direct link to this article, but you have to register on the FT site, and frankly it's so much goddamn trouble -- I've just tried -- that it isn't worth the effort. But the article is on there somewhere and you can get to the FT home page here if you really want to.)

Sanghera had noted, during four years of interviewing for the FT, that although he had often come across well-known people who had every right to feel bitter, he had never once found that they were. Nick Leeson, for instance, who had been banged up in jail for over four years, and had colon cancer as well, was not bitter at all.

So when Sanghera wanted to write an article about bitterness, he was hard put to find anyone in the public eye who suffered from this condition. But then -- of course! -- he turned to the book world, and he found, not surprisingly, that bitter authors are not too difficult to stumble across.

Take Leon Arden, for instance. In 1981 Leon wrote a novel called One Fine Day. It told the story of a man who finds himself living the same day over and over again. The movie companies were interested, and Disney bought the film rights. But while Disney was still thinking about how to handle the project, Columbia Pictures brought out a film about -- er -- a man who finds himself living the same day over and over again. Called Groundhog Day. And it was, as you may recall, quite a nice little hit. Grossed $70m.

So, Arden sued. As you would expect. For $15m. And lost. As you would expect. 'I can appreciate Arden's frustration,' said the Judge. 'However, ideas are not copyrightable.'

Is Arden bitter? 'Oh Christ, yes, I'm bitter.' And he goes on, at some length. As does Sanghera, who comments that bitterness is 'more unrelenting than hate, more painful than unhappiness, more paralysing than depression.' It is 'one of the worst things that can happen to you.' And for good measure, a medical expert on the psychological effects of bitterness adds, 'It is impossible to be happy or healthy while you carry a grudge.'

The following day, the Sunday Times carried an interview with Colin Wilson. The name won't mean much to you unless you are (a) over 60, and (b) English, but in the late 1950s Colin Wilson was as famous in England as a writer can possibly get. In fact, more famous than you can imagine, because in those days there were far fewer media to read, view and listen to. Everybody read and watched the same things. So the interviewer, Jasper Gerard, rightly points out that 'it is inconceivable that a writer could now acquire similar celebrity.'

Wilson's fame soon faded from that astonishing peak, for a variety of reasons, but since his debut he has written over 100 books and has just produced his autobiography. And, as Gerard points out, he is angry, bitter and depressed. He is particularly bitter about being shunned by the literary establishment; the English, apparently, refuse to take men of ideas seriously.

I hope that by now you have got the message that even a 'successful' writer can have a pretty grim time. But wait. There is more.

Today's book2book provides a link to an article in The Independent by Simon Trewin, who is an agent at Curtis Brown. Trewin describes, in pretty blunt terms, the painful truth about being a young (or new) writer in today's publishing. 'It is a sobering thought,' he says, 'that the majority of debut novels will be published to deafening silence.'

If the publisher wants to sign you up, you are treated like a celebrity. At least until the sales figures come in. 'When I signed my publishing deal,' says one author bitterly (Trewin's adverb), 'it was all champagne and lunch, but when they dropped me it was by email to my agent.... That hurt like crazy.' A promising career, concludes Trewin, 'can be over before it starts.'

Listen, my friends. I have said it before and I say it again. Think hard before you invest the huge amount of time and effort which is involved in writing a novel. And think hard before you wish for a career as a writer. Who knows, your wish might come true. And then where would you be?

Friday, June 18, 2004

More on copywrong

Yesterday brought news of two more aggrieved parties who believe that their copyright has been breached, stolen, or otherwise abused.

First, a report from Los Angeles. Diana Locke has written two books on cosmetic surgery. Some time ago, she thought up an idea for a TV show, focusing on the emotional and psychological aspects of plastic surgery. She 'pitched' this show (as they say) to a producer friend in August 2001. He is turn discussed it with his agent. An attempt was then made to sell the idea to a cable network, but the attempt failed and everyone abandoned the project.

Then -- goodness me, what a surprise -- the agent who had been involved sold a very similar idea to ABC, who turned it into a show called 'Extreme Makeover'.

And now Ms Locke is suing everyone in sight, claiming breach of confidence, conspiracy, and unjust enrichment. She seeks damages of $10 million. At least.

Yeah, well, good luck to everyone is all I can say. The only people likely to benefit, in my estimation, are the lawyers.

The case will presumably be tried under Californian law, and who knows what peculiarities are embedded there. In English law, however, it is mighty difficult to protect an 'idea'. In fact there is no copyright in 'ideas' unless they are developed into a detailed draft of a book or TV programme.

In his book Publishing Law, Hugh Jones has this to say. 'It is not at all easy to protect original ideas as such.... Good ideas have a habit of re-appearing later in different forms, and rejected authors might easily suspect that their ideas have simply been stolen.... There is probably not a lot that can be done about this.'

It is likely that Diana Locke's case will hinge on the extent to which the idea was 'developed', and the extent to which discussions of it were recognised as confidential by the parties involved. I would not personally bet any money on Ms Locke coming out a winner, but perhaps an insurance company may pay her a little money to shut up and go away -- though without admitting any liability, of course.

Meanwhile the Publishers Lunch newsletter reported a case heard in Germany, where a Harvard University professor is claiming that the writer and director of the movie The Day After Tomorrow plagiarised his book. Ubaldo DiBenedetto (77) alleges that Roland Emmerich's film stole parts of his 1993 novel Polar Day 9, which he had written under the pseudonym Kyle Donner. Amazing what these Harvard men get up to in their spare time, isn't it?

Once again, I would not bet money on the author's chances of proving his case. The judge has already said that, although there are similarities between book and film, they do not appear to amount to plagiarism. A ruling is expected on 7 July.

These two cases constitute yet further evidence -- not that any is needed -- that being a writer is a pretty thankless business, and one, furthermore, which is likely to lead to anger, bitterness, and frustration.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

WHS and the malaise in publishing

W.H. Smith -- or WHSmith, or WH Smith, or WHS, depending on which styling you prefer -- is a firm in trouble. And, like many firms in trouble, this one finds itself subject to a takeover bid.

Just in case you don't know, WHS is the UK's second largest bookseller, and last weekend’s newspapers reported that the venture capital group Permira has offered £940m for the company. There is just one little snag, however. On checking the books, it appears that there is a shortfall in the WHS pension fund -- somewhere between £200m and £250m, depending on which report you believe. But then what are a few million between friends?

The two paragraphs immediately above tell you all you need to know about the UK book trade -- i.e. that it is not very profitable and it is not very well managed. WHS have been in business for over a hundred years, and for decades they dominated the high street, at least as far as books are concerned. Even in recent years, they have only been overtaken by Waterstones, and they still have much larger sales than their next nearest competitor, which in 2002 was Ottakars. But despite all that, they can’t even fund their employees’ pensions properly.

The weekend’s papers (e.g. the Sunday Times) carried several pages of adverts from WHS for ‘book bargains’. The good old 3 for 2 dodge again. Well, it may work but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Another ‘rationalisation’ announced by WHS recently relates to the sale of magazines. In future, WHS will not stock small-circulation and specialist magazines; they will only stock the big sellers. So, even though WHS is the biggest newsagent on the block, they probably won’t even match the range of magazines which is available from some modest little corner shops. Does that sound to you like a successful sales strategy?

The Sunday Herald for 13 June carried an article about the particular problems which the current state of the book trade creates for small Scottish publishers. The law of greed rules, says the article, and ‘the book trade is now falling apart.’ The big high-street booksellers demand up to 60% discount on the books they stock. ‘Joe Reader sees this as giving him a cheap read, but the fact is such bloodsucking discounts are bleeding the industry white.’ And WHS still can’t make a decent profit!

And the result of all this? The Sunday Herald has little doubt. ‘Paper, printing and binding costs are relatively fixed, so it is the writer who suffers most. Royalties are discounted until they are almost zero. These days, unless you are a big name, you are a no-name.’

And this is the business that all you wannabe authors are busting your guts trying to get into? Good luck, kids.

Friday, June 11, 2004


The GOB will be away from home for a few days. And even if he had mastered the fancy new technology of emailing posts from Zanzibar or whatever, which he hasn't, he wouldn't really have time or, for that matter, access to a machine.

So, no further posts until 17 June or thereabouts.

London's Underworld

London's Underworld, by Fergus Linnane, is a book which could only have been written by an enthusiast.

The author had a long career in journalism and his final post was that of executive editor of the European. London's Underworld was written post retirement and reflects a lifelong interest in the darker side of our beloved capital.

Subtitled 'Three centuries of vice and crime', the book gives us a chapter by chapter survey of the wickedness of the big city, of which there is more than a little. Each chapter deals with a particular aspect of crime, such as highwaymen or hit men, drugs, prisons, and so forth.

Particularly interesting, to me, was the chapter on bent coppers. It is all too easy to forget, but well within living memory the Metropolitan police force was thoroughly corrupt. And it still may be.

In the 1960s and '70s it was the Soho porn business which was the chief source of trouble, because men will insist on being interested in sex. It's really most remiss of them. This meant that there was (and is) lots of money sloshing around in Soho.

By the 1970s, the Obscene Publications Squad was thoroughly corrupt. A Judge who jailed twelve members of Scotland Yard’s ‘dirty squad’ in the 1970s said that they were involved in an ‘evil conspiracy which turned the Obscene Publications Act into a vast protection racket.’ In other words, if a porn broker paid up, he could sell whatever pleased. ‘We bought our own justice,’ said one operator. ‘And the more we paid, the better justice we got.’

In 1972 Sir Robert Mark, a former Chief Constable of Leicester, was appointed as Commissioner to clear up the mess. He was given a less than enthusiastic reception by the men under his command. Mark responded by telling a meeting of the CID, to their faces, that they were members of the most routinely corrupt organisation in London, and that if necessary he would put the whole lot of them back in uniform and make a fresh start.

It is hard to know how much effect Mark actually had. Evidence, of a sort, was assembled against scores of officers, but there were few prosecutions and fewer convictions. Out of 74 officers investigated, 12 resigned, 28 retired, 8 were dismissed, and 13 were jailed.

If you want to read about this problem at length, you can consult The Fall of Scotland Yard, by Barry Cox and others (Penguin, 1977), a book which is listed in Linnane's extensive bibliography.

The problem, it seems, continues. Sir Paul Condon, another Met chief, said in the late 1990s that there were 250 corrupt officers in the CID.

Linnane's book is long (372 pages), well researched, and detailed. It will be invaluable to anyone who wants to write about crime in London, whether fiction or non-fiction. But not many people, I suspect, will have bought the hardback at £16.95. Neither will all that many libraries have selected it. Wiltshire County Council, for instance, bought two copies for the entire county.

Let's be generous and estimate that the hardback sold 1,000 copies, though 500 is more likely. There is a paperback version to come in August this year: let's be generous again and say 5,000 copies sold. The book is available in the US, through a distribution arrangement with Parkwest Publications, but I can't see it doing much over there. So, if we do the arithmetic on the royalties, the author's earnings are likely to be in the region of £5,000 or £6,000. At best. This probably doesn't even cover his expenses.

As I said at the beginning, a book which could only have been written by an enthusiast.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Men and books

My son kindly sent me an article from last Sunday's Observer -- 'You couldn't make it up', by Jonathan Heawood -- which contains some interesting data about book readership.

The article is really prompted by a slightly wearisome promotion by Penguin Books, which is intended 'to get more young men reading, thereby releasing a huge reservoir of marketing opportunities.' But we won't bother about that.

Neither will we dwell on the fact, or alleged fact, which Penguin's research purports to show, namely that men who are seen reading a book are more attractive to the opposite sex. I have spent my entire life reading books, and I have seldom had to beat the ladies off with a club, so I am not too impressed by that finding.

No, instead we will look at the issues and the data, such as they are, which are associated with the Penguin initiative. First, Heawood points out that, whatever the success or otherwise of Penguin's cunning wheeze (known as 'Good Booking', by the way), there's 'a serious issue at stake. Why don't men read books?'

Well, to begin with, of course, they do. I seem to remember, a few years ago, reading an article by a couple of ladies who were running a 'women's bookshop'. They made the point that, loyalty to the sisters notwithstanding, they would have gone bust had it not been for the blokes popping in for the books on football and classic cars et cetera.

According to research by Book Marketing Ltd, sales of books divide virtually 50/50 between the genders, but the same source claims that only 44% of men read novels, compared with 77% of women. So the question is this -- how can writers, publishers, and booksellers persuade more of those blokes to read novels, and thus release lots of cash into the system?

Well, I wouldn't have thought there was any great secret about it. You just arrange for lots more first-class thrillers to be available. Men have always read 'thrillers' (however defined) and I suspect they always will. You can go back to Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab (the smash hit of 1886), through the pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s, to the world of Mickey Spillane (for the not so bright), Ian Fleming (for the fairly bright) and Len Deighton (for the awesomely bright -- particularly in relation to the early books, where it was one hell of a job to figure out what was going on). So, the answer to getting men to read books is to produce lots more first-class thrillers. 'T'ain't no secret. All you have to do is find the writers who can do the job.

Ah, well now, that's the bit tricky, that is. Though the methodology itself is not a secret either. You just find someone who is interested in doing the job, and who shows some aptitude for it, and then you train 'em up, and you allow their talent to develop over half a dozen books, and with a bit of luck you eventually end up, one time out of ten or so, with a professional series of books which will sell and sell.

But do our friends the publishers have sufficient wit and wisdom to do that?

How many guesses do you need to answer that one?

In the first place, the people capable of training up said thriller writers are few and far between. But they do exist. I myself, for example, am available for consultancy on this issue for a modest £500 a day. Whether any publisher is prepared to make such an investment is open to question (just about), but the answer to the question is normally No.

Then there's the question of allowing the talent time and space to develop. Not to mention the question of how the poor devil is to support himself (or herself) while mastering the art of writing. Modern publishers just don't have the patience to do this. (I suspect that they don't have the resources either, for all their massive and much publicised advances.) Years ago, Simon Raven's publisher paid him a weekly wage to produce books, and my guess is that lots of writers might be interested in such a scheme today. But publishers -- or their accountants -- just can't bring themselves to do that.

Only last night, for instance, I attended a talk by a local writer, Stan Hey. Stan has written three books about a private eye who is based in the author's home town, Bradford on Avon. The audience was naturally interested to know when the next book would appear. Ah well, said Stan, the publisher isn't interested in doing any more unless the TV people want to turn it into a series. And the TV people aren't interested unless there are more books.

You see, Stan's books are perfectly professional, but they haven't 'caught fire', 'taken off', 'broken out' or done any of the other fancy things that publishers prattle about. If they gave him time (and money) to do 10 or 20 of the things, everyone might get somewhere. But no. If it doesn't happen now, they just aren't interested. Try someone else. You never know, a new and unknown writer might turn out to have the magic formula. They might know how to sacrifice frogs at the crossroads at midnight, or do whatever it takes.

It was not always thus. Some publishers used to have a rather better understanding of the writer's art. In 1981 I had breakfast (as you do) with a crime fiction editor at Dell, the American paperback company which was then publishing some of my own crime fiction. Who on their list had I been reading, he asked me.

I mentioned the name (now forgotten) of an American woman who had written four or five whodunits set in small towns, with domestic cookery as the common theme. She was, I said, a pretty entertaining writer.

Yes, said the editor, she was. But unfortunately she had recently died. Which was a pity, he added, because after four or five books she was 'just beginning to learn how to plot.'

The old guys at least understood how things work, you see. The new ones either don't or won't.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Early One Morning

Early One Morning, by Robert Ryan, is in many ways an excellent novel. I just wish I liked it more.

The book is inspired by the real-life exploits of Robert Benoist, William Grover, and Eve Aubicq. These three were young in the 1930s: the two men were racing-car drivers, and in the second world war all three were involved in the French Resistance movement. Ryan has used this background as the basis for a thriller.

The author's note, at the back of the book, and the bibliography, reveal that Ryan did a significant amount of research. And not just reading, either; he also interviewed some of the Special Operations Executive staff from that era. This is a background which I have used myself in more than one novel, so I can see immediately how much work Ryan has done to get things right. Although, as the author rightly insists, the novel is very much a novel; it is a work of fiction suggested by the historical facts.

Ryan has written three previous novels, which seem to have garnered some enthusiastic reviews. 'Wonderfully exhilarating,' said the Sunday Times of one; 'I doubt whether there will be a better novel this year,' said the Independent.

So, given that the background is of great interest to me, and given that Ryan is so obviously a competent writer, why didn't I really enjoy this book?

Well, it may just be the weather (hot), or perhaps it is my grumpy temperament, as usual; but I suspect that there are technical reasons.

First, the book moves back and forth from 2001 to the 1930s, and then on to war time, 1942/43. Yes, I have used this kind of chronological structure myself, but flashbacks and flashforwards really don't help. The best way to involve a reader is to start at the beginning of a story and go on to the end, and not whizz back and forth.

It is no accident, for instance, that Margery Allingham's novel Hide My Eyes (which I have also just finished reading) confines all its action to twenty-four hours. Allingham knew that keeping things tight pays dividends. Neither is it an accident that when James Grady's book Six Days of the Condor was filmed, the title was changed to Three Days of the Condor. A short time-frame is better than a long one, OK?

The next problem is that, as usual, the book is just too damn long. It runs to 335 pages, which is what publishers these days want, of course. It gives the reader the impression of value for money. But is writing at that length the best way to grab and hold your reader? I take leave to doubt it.

Finally we have the technical question of viewpoint. Really powerful and effective novels view the action solely from the viewpoint of a small number of characters. See Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca if you want a well-nigh perfect example. (That is another book, incidentally, which is set in the second world war.) And for my money Ryan's use of viewpoint is too diffuse.

However.... Having said all that, I have to say that the reviewers on Amazon take a different view of Early One Morning, and I don't think those particular readers' reports are fakes. The average punter seems to have enjoyed the book. So, if you're looking for a good wartime thriller, give this a go.

Finally, I find myself, as usual, wondering about the economics of all this, and asking myself whether it is likely that Mr Ryan will continue to write novels. He has not been taken up by an American publisher, so his income is presumably dependent on the UK market. Furthermore, good reviews (as I can testify) do not necessarily result in big sales. And Mr Ryan has a wife and three children. So the question is this: Is writing novels a cost-effective use of his time?

Knowing what I do about how long it takes to research and write a novel of this kind, and knowing what I do about the financial return on a not particularly big seller in the UK market, I think the answer is surely No.

A little aside to end with. In the author's note, Mr Ryan relates how he was fortunate enough to interview Vera Atkins, shortly before her death. Atkins was a major figure in the SOE, which parachuted several hundred brave men and women into German-occupied France. These volunteers were, of course, treated as spies, and many of them were shot, tortured, or starved to death. (Robert Benoist, for instance, was hanged by piano wire in Buchenwald, along with 36 other Allied officers, on 12 September 1944.)

During the course of a dinner at the Special Forces Club, Mr Ryan's friend Jack Bond asked Vera Atkins how she viewed the Germans, sixty years after the end of the war.

There was a long pause while she drew on a cigarette, and she eventually said, very softly, but with great feeling: 'As disagreeable as ever, really.'

Couldn't put it better myself.

Monday, June 07, 2004

A timely offer

Last Saturday's Times came with an A5 pamphlet which was labelled 20 Modern Classics. The cover illustration clearly indicated that the classics in question were books.

At first sight, this pamphlet might have been taken for a product of the Times's noble aim of educating its readership. Was it, I wondered, a list of essential reading prepared and approved by the greatest literary minds of our time -- a list which all right-minded individuals would instantly read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest?

Well no, actually, it wasn't. What it was was a desperate attempt to sell a few books on behalf of (a) the Times, which will doubtless take its cut, (b) HarperCollins, which seems to have published the books, and (c) W.H. Smith (or WHSmith, as it now appears to style itself). Far from having noble motives relating to education, this turns out to be a marketing exercise, pure and simple. Well, simple, anyway.

The deal appears to be this. You wander into WHS on any Monday for the next 20 weeks, you buy a copy of the Times, and you also get the right to buy, for a mere 99p, the 'modern classic' which the three sponsors of this exercise have decided will be on offer. Different book each week. Full details of the offer can be found on the Times web site.

Hmm. Pardon me for being suspicious, but it looks to me as if HarperCollins is just trying to shift some stagnant stock which they have lying around the warehouse. So what of these 'modern classics'? Who are the authors, and how classic can the books reasonably be said to be?

Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of the Times, says in a foreword to the booklet that the list 'is a good one. It's full of books you should have on your shelves.' Oh? Why so? Well, every author is allegedly a prize-winner of sorts. But then there are prizes and prizes. As far as I am concerned, the most prestigious prizes (Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker) are usually a pretty good indication that the books involved are not going to be of any interest to me.

For the record, I have heard of 16 of the 20 authors involved in this 'modern classics' offer, and I have actually read a couple of the books -- the crime fiction ones, you won't be surprised to hear. Reginald Hill and Robert Wilson are both former winners of the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award, which is usually a guarantee of high professional quality, if nothing else. As for the remaining books, they are a mixture of highbrow fiction and non-fiction, with all the usual suspects featured: Arundhati Roy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Any Tan, Tony Parsons, et al.

By a curious coincidence, the Times and HarperCollins are both News Corp. companies, which means that they are run (I understand) by a chap called Murdoch. I seem to have read somewhere that he has a young family to support -- or a young wife, anyway -- so I assume you will all rally round and pass over your 99p on a weekly basis.

The only one of the 20 books which looks as if it might tempt me is Sabriel, by Garth Nix. Never heard of him or his book before, but he comes with an endorsement from Philip Pullman; and Pullman doesn't strike me as a man who would give a plug just because his publisher asked him to do so -- certainly not without actually reading the book. (As so many do, you know. It's a wicked world.)

Final thought. What of the poor bloody authors? How much are they going to get out of a book selling at 99p?

My guess is that such sales will be covered by the small print of the contract, and the author's income is likely to be 10% of the money received by the publisher. At best. So, let's say 10% of 50p = 5p a copy. Or, to take the worst-case scenario, the sales might be dealt with under the 'remainders and disposal of surplus stock' clause. In which case the following sentence might apply: 'On disposal of stock at or below the cost of production, no royalty shall be payable.'

Still, the authors get all that free publicity, don't they? I'm sure they'll be happy with that.

A Hat Full of Sky

By any rational assessment, Terry Pratchett is England's 'best' living author. I put the word 'best' in inverted commas because you can substitute your own preferred superlative and the statement will nearly always remain true. The only thing that isn't true is to say that Pratchett is the author 'most widely admired by the literary establishment'. But since no one in full possession of their senses gives a tinker's cuss what the literary establishment thinks about anything, that need hardly detain us.

It may be, however, that you are not one of Mr Pratchett's admirers. If that is because you've never read any of his books, then kindly read on because you will be encouraged, I hope, to do so. If it's because you've read a couple of said works and they didn't 'take', well that's a pity. But, as I have doubtless remarked before, we all have different frames of reference, and what works for one reader will not necessarily work for another. This circumstance does not, please note, tell us anything whatever about the absolute value of the underlying work. And, for the benefit of those who have only just joined us, the reason why it doesn't tell us anything about the absolute value of the underlying novel is because there is no such thing as an absolute value for a work of fiction. There is no such thing as a Great Novel, divorced from its readers, or an absolute stinker of a novel either, for that matter. There are only novels, and readers; and sometimes the two form a happy pair, and sometimes they don't.

But back to Mr Pratchett. I myself was put off reading him for some years, because I didn't like the cover illustrations on those early books. Yes, I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover -- and I do remember hearing that before, somewhere -- but with so much to choose from I put the books on one side for while. Eventually, however, I saw the light of day.

For the record, Pratchett writes what might, perhaps, be called science fiction or fantasy novels about a place called the Discworld. The Discworld is best thought of as a parallel universe in which things don't happen in quite the same way as they do here. In particular, the Discworld is a place of magic, witchcraft, and a pleasing lack of technology.

Pratchett has an official web site, set up by his publishers. And I should bloody well hope so too, because he makes enough money for them. On that site, the author tells us that the Discworld 'started out as a parody of all the fantasy that was around in the big boom of the early '80s, then turned into a satire on just about everything, and even I don't know what it is now. I do know that in that time there's been at least four people promoted as "new Terry Pratchetts" so for all I know I may not even still be me.'

This is no place to tell you more about the Discworld than that. But this is the place to tell you that Pratchett has so far written more than 30 novels about his imaginary world, and that the latest is called A Hat Full of Sky. I hope and believe that I have read all Pratchett's books, some of them twice, and I have just finished this one.

Sky, to abbreviate it, is about Tiffany Aching, an 11-year-old trainee witch who goes off to begin her apprenticeship in magic. She is accompanied by a number of Nac Mac Feegles, who are men (mostly) about six inches high. The Feegles are extremely aggressive, so they're good to have on your side, and they speak, oddly enough, with a pronounced Scottish accent.

Which is as much as you need to know, really. It may not sound very interesting, but it certainly entertained me.

Most of the Discworld books are aimed at adult readers (not that there is anything remotely 'adult' about them), but Sky is technically a YA, or young adult book. It is hard to say quite how it differs from the other ones, but there is, admittedly, a slightly different tone to it.

Before reading Sky you might, perhaps, wish to read The Wee Free Men, which is about the same characters but comes first in the series.

You can also, if you wish, read an interview with Pratchett on the Locus magazine site.

Pratchett's next book is to be entitled Going Postal. 'Folk myth believes,' says the author, 'that there’s something about working for the post office that drives people around the bend.' Well yes, quite, quite. I well remember working in the post office at Christmas, all those years ago. Not sure I ever recovered. It could account for quite a lot, now that I come to think about it.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Allingham centenary

It has long been obvious to anyone with any taste for English crime fiction that Margery Allingham is a giant of the genre. And although I'm a week or two late, it is worth reporting that 20 May 2004 was the hundredth anniversary of her birth.

Publishing News reported last week that, to mark the occasion, Sara Paretsky travelled to London to unveil a plaque at 1 Westbourne Crescent, London W2, Allingham's former home. Ms Paretsky declared that Margery Allingham was one of her own inspirations.

There is a very active Margery Allingham Society, which is dedicated to celebrating the life and work of a great 'Queen of Crime'. She wasn't as famous as Agatha Christie, but was every bit her equal in terms of plotting; and, although Agatha was no slouch, Margery was the better writer, I think. The Society's web site contains lots more information about exhibitions, past and forthcoming publications, et cetera. There is also a bibliography.

I myself have been reading Allingham for decades. I read many of her novels back in the 1950s, and in recent years have bought secondhand copies of her books whenever I came across them. Earlier this year, without realising that 2004 marked the centenary of her birth, I decided to re-read the whole canon, from beginning to end, and am now on the last two or three. I shall have more to say when I've finished.

For the moment, if the name is new to you, just be aware that here was a most capable professional writer. Even though the books are between 40 and 75 years old, and very much of their time, they are remarkably entertaining and exceptionally well written. If you can find anything to equal them today you are one lucky reader.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

One constant in an ever-changing world

Yesterday's Times carried an obituary of Roger Straus, one of the founders of what became Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a famous New York publisher. It was mentioned in the course of this obit that Giroux joined the firm when he grew sick of working at Harcourt Brace, under the command of one Eugene Reynal. The latter had distinguished himself by turning down Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Well, ole Eugene was in pretty damn good company, in the sense that publishers have a long and distinguished history of turning down books which went on to become smash hits or distinguished literary masterpieces. Or even, occasionally, both. There have been so many of these bloopers that a whole book has been written about them -- Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard. Not a new book, but it keeps appearing in new editions.

Typical rejection letters quoted by Bernard include the following:'
'It is impossible to sell animal stories.' (Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.)
'You're welcome to John le Carre -- he hasn't got any future.' (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963.)
Perhaps the most famous and I suppose tragic case of author rejection is that of the American novelist, John Kennedy Toole. In the early 1960s Toole became deeply disturbed by the frequent rejection of his book A Confederacy of Dunces, and in 1969 he committed suicide as a result.

Toole’s mother then took on the task of trying to find a publisher for her son's book. She finally managed it, and A Confederacy of Dunces was hailed by the New York Times as a ‘masterwork of comedy.' In 1981 the novel was awarded the Pulitzer prize. But that was a bit late in the day for its author.

Of course, editors not only overlook potentially successful books, but they also pay more than good money -- huge sums of money in fact -- for books which prove to be flops in the marketplace.

In the 2002 edition of the Writer’s Handbook, Barry Turner gave a couple of examples. I will omit the authors’ names here, because they have suffered enough already. One minute they were told, by publishers, that they were geniuses whose books were going to be big hits, and the next they were told, by the public, that actually they weren’t very interesting at all.

Author A was paid £300,000 by Faber for two novels. The first came out in 2001 and sold less than 4,000 copies. Author B was paid £250,000 for one book, by a different publisher, and this one generated sales of 1,500 copies.

All of which reminds me to mention, before it becomes hopelessly out of date, a point made by Nicholas Clee in his Guardian column on 22 May. He pointed out that book buyers continue to surprise publishers by what takes their fancy. Katie Price's Being Jordan, for instance, which was turned down by several firms, became the second-bestselling biography of the year after only three days on the market. And Transworld paid only a modest advance for Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the success of which was reportedly unexpected.

So, it's kind of comforting really, isn't it, to know that in an ever-changing world, full of hustle and bustle, hurly and burly, one thing remains absolutely constant and eternally the same: whether it's 1945, 1963, 1981 or 2004, the unfailing ability of publishers to back the wrong horse while simultaneously turning down a winner remains gloriously unimpaired.

Further to the point

I fear this topic may be getting tedious, not to say pompous, so let's round it off as quickly as we can.

Yesterday I asked a rhetorical question. If it is true, I said, that art -- and for 'art' read 'books' on this occasion -- is valued mainly insofar as it gives pleasure, then what are the implications for the working writer?

The implications are surely obvious, at any rate if you're a writer who wants to get read. You have to write a book which people will enjoy reading. And how do you do that, precisely?

Well, it isn't a secret, at least in principle. Edgar Allan Poe put his finger on it over 150 years ago. In 1842, Poe used his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales to set out his views on the most effective way to write a short story. And what Poe had to say about the short story applies equally well to novels and, for that matter, to paintings and any other art form. Here is an extract from Poe's argument:
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If he is wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents -- he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tends not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. As by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art a sense of the fullest satisfaction.
In this one paragraph Poe has condensed almost every important truth about the writer’s task and the role of emotion in art generally.

Poe says that, if the literary artist (writer) is wise, he will not ‘fashion his thoughts to accommodate his incidents’. What this means is that you should not simply write a story based on whatever ‘incidents’ happen to come into your head. What you should do is decide upon ‘a certain unique or single effect’ -- in other words, you must decide what precise emotion it is that you wish to generate in the reader. You then invent such events, or incidents, as will best bring about ‘this preconceived effect.’

To paraphrase Poe in more modern English: The writer’s job is to decide what emotion to create in the reader, and then to invent a series of events -- otherwise known as a plot -- which will generate that emotion.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. But if you understand what you are trying to do -- or what you should be trying to do, if you have any sense -- then at least you have a fighting chance of achieving it. If you are dumb enough to believe in the inspiration theory of literature, and if you are naive enough to believe that everything you write must be marvellous, simply because it flows from the tip of your pen, then you deserve all the trouble you get. And believe me, you will have trouble in abundance.

Even if you have a correct understanding of the purpose of fiction, it is likely to take you ten years and a million or so words before you acquire much fluency and facility. And even then you still have to find a publisher who can actually recognise a book that works when it's still a pile of manuscript. Which is not too difficult. There must be at least one in every hundred.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Everyone who's anyone again

A while back I mentioned one Gerard Jones, who has a web site called Everyone Who's Anyone. This site celebrates the fact that Gerard has tried to sell his memoir, Ginny Good, to almost every agent and publisher in the entire universe. Well, it turns out that eventually he did get it into print; and what's more, he has a fan.

Nicholas Clee is the editor of the Bookseller, and every week or two he writes a column in the Guardian, outlining the latest news from the world publishing industry. In his latest column Nicholas notes that he not only read Gerard's web site but he also made a donation to it, and got a copy of Ginny Good by way of thanks.

Nicholas describes the book as 'a rather wonderful memoir'. It is, he says, 'direct, funny and touching.' But he cannot, he adds, condemn the hundreds of literary agents and publishers who declined to take it on. Such books are hard to market. And for what it's worth, I can testify to that from my own publishing experience. No matter how 'good' such a book is, in the abstract, nobody wants it. Despite the odd exception -- Angela's Ashes, Wild Swans, et cetera -- such books do not normally sell.

More to the point

Yesterday I drew attention to two young men who, in 1927, had come to certain conclusions about the purpose and value of art. Oddly enough, on another continent another young person was expressing much the same point of view at much the same time.

I have on my bookshelf a collection of essays first published in America in 1928 and entitled The Art of Playwriting. One of the contributors to this book had an acquaintance called Jennie, who worked long hours in a beauty parlour. Jennie had this to say:

‘When I go home at night I’m too tired for anything. I can’t sleep, I can’t read, I can’t speak, and I don’t want nobody to speak to me. But for five cents I can go to the movies and sit and rest and see things I never could see any other way -- grand people, wild animals, foreign cities, wonderful houses and strange beautiful things. And I forget about myself and go home all made over. And the things I have to stand from him [her husband] don’t seem half so hard.’
Now that’s not very difficult to understand, is it?

My friends, art is all about alienation, and the alleviation of same. Marx was right (Karl, that is, not Groucho): in industrial society, man lives in a state of alienation. (Feminists please note: man, as the old joke has it, embraces woman.)

We need go back no further than 1750 to find that lives then were lived quite differently. At that time, most people lived in the country, and worked in agriculture. They were, literally, close to nature -- ever conscious of the weather, the changing seasons, the progress of the crops. And the novel, please notice, had barely been invented. Cinema, radio, television, recorded music, all of these were not even science fiction.

Move on to 1900, and you find that most people now live in cities. They frequently work in factories, undertaking repetitive work for long hours. They may very well go to work before dawn, spend all day with barely a glimpse of daylight, and stagger home in the dark. Office workers and those in the service industries don’t fare much better.

If that isn’t a state of alienation I don’t know what is.

Today, many of us no longer work in factories which concentrate on mass production. But we travel long distances to work; once there, we rush from meeting to meeting, grabbing a sandwich at lunch, answering the mobile phone as we go. We develop headaches, ulcers, and back problems, and we have what used to be called nervous breakdowns.

In my judgement, it is no coincidence that the process of industrialisation and its associated alienation led, simultaneously, to a tremendous growth in the entertainment media.

Over the 250 years since 1750 we have seen the development of radio, various formats for recorded music which can be played at will, cinema, television, and of course the print media. We have hundreds of satellite channels, computer games, video-recorders, DVDs. The average person spends over 20 hours a week watching television alone.

The output of the entertainment media is hungrily consumed because such consumption helps to combat our sense of alienation. I think we have to accept that most of us simply cannot do without the constant doses of emotion which the media provide. Judging by our behaviour, most of us can no more survive without such intake of entertainment than we can survive without water. Thus the purpose of ‘art’, as young Theo pointed out yesterday, is primarily to provide pleasure. It is valued in direct proportion to its capacity to perform this function.

What are the implications of this for the working writer (or artist in any other medium)? Of that, more, perhaps, tomorrow.