Monday, October 31, 2005
Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the Everyone Who's Anyone web site, which is owned and operated by Gerard Jones. That site is now being threatened with closure.
Everyone Who's Anyone is a list of the names, addresses, and other details, of virtually all the literary agents and publishers of any note in the UK, USA, and Canada. Gerard originally assembled this list to facilitate his own efforts to sell his book Ginny Good -- efforts which were eventually successful. Having collected all this information, Gerard made it available to writers everywhere; and in the last year or so he has added a vast amount of further data about film companies.
Not surprisingly, many writers have taken advantage of this vast resource, which represents hundreds of hours of work, and have used it to send enquiry letters to said agents, publishers, and film producers. And, of course, as the more seasoned of us well know, not everyone in the book or movie world is always pleased to hear from as-yet-unpublished writers, whom they regard as deadbeat losers, unwashed, smelly, and otherwise undesirable.
Recently, Universal Studios, which is one of the bigger companies listed on Everyone Who's Anyone, has decided that it can no longer put up with the gross inconvenience of having its executives' email addresses and other data listed on the site, and has lodged a formal complaint with Dotster, the company with which Gerard registered the domain name: the aim of the complaint being to get Gerard's site closed down.
Now, I don't know how you feel about this, but I for one am not happy about it. If big companies -- not to mention politicians -- are able to have web sites closed down simply because they don't happen to like the content of those web sites, then I believe we are in serious trouble.
I therefore draw your attention to this state of affairs and invite you to have a think about it. To assist you in thinking, I am going to set out below the following documents. 1, a copy of the email from Carolyn Hampton to Dotster; 2, a copy of Gerard's email to Carolyn Hampton; 3, a copy of my email to Carolyn Hampton; and 4, some concluding comments.
1. Text of email from Carolyn Hampton
Dear Sir or Madam:
This web site, which is hosted by your servers, lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, titles, and private e-mail addresses of nearly every single one of Universal Studios senior executives (see:
The site encourages would-be screenwriters to inundate our executives with unsolicited submissions, spam, phone calls, etc. Indeed, since this material was posted by your customer (Gerard Jones), the amount of spam e-mail our executives have received has sky rocketed, with scores of people sending us ideas for screenplays.
Universal has a longstanding company policy of not accepting any ideas or materials which were not solicited by us. For legal and insurance reasons, we seek to avoid future misunderstandings if we independently develop a project which may be similar to someone else's script or idea.
We believe that paragraphs 10 (a, g, j, o) and 11 of your Registration Agreement prohibit Mr. Jones activity on his site as he encourages the public at large to harass our executives, engage in spamming, disrupt our servers, etc. We also believe that the site invades the privacy of our senior executives as their personal information (titles and e-mail addresses) is not available to the public.
We would appreciate it if you could respond at your earliest convenience because we would like to put a stop to the harassment as soon as possible. Thank you, in advance, for your consideration.
Carolyn A. Hampton
Vice President - Litigation Counsel
100 Universal City Plaza, LRW-6
Universal City, CA 91608
2. Text of Gerard Jones's email to Carolyn Hampton
1) They're not "private" email addresses. Carolyn Hampton has a job as a litigation counsel for Universal Pictures; her email address is therefore:
2) I use the list for my own private, personal, legal purposes and don't "encourage would-be screenwriters to inundate (our) executives with unsolicited submissions, spam, phone calls, etc."
3) I got all the information on my site from Google and other search engines. Shut them down.
4) I do not "encourage(s) the public at large to harass (our) executives, engage in spamming, disrupt (our) servers, etc." I have no control over what people do with the information on my site.
5) The site does not invade the privacy of anyone. All the information on it is freely available to anyone with the ability to extrapolate.
I've simply put the results of my independent research on my website for my convenience.
6) "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." --Bill of Rights, Amendment One
I hope this clears things up. To mitigate any trouble you may feel I've caused you or NBC Universal, I'm including a link to a free audio book of the only truly original, worthwhile work of art published or produced anywhere in the world thus far in the 21st Century:
3. Text of my email to Carolyn Hampton
I have seen a copy of your complaint in respect of the Everyone Who's Anyone web site which is operated by Gerard Jones.
My sincere advice to you is to withdraw your complaint. If you insist on pursuing this matter, I think you will find that you have achieved an effect precisely opposite to that which you hope to achieve.
I understand that, like most of us, you would like to minimise the number of unwelcome emails and other communications being sent to your senior executives. You are trying to achieve that by persuading Mr Jones's ISP [actually Dotster] to close down his site.
I suspect that, by taking this step, you have ensured that Universal Studios in general, and yourself in particular, will be the subject of a great deal of (well deserved) criticism from the online community. People who, only a few days ago, had never heard of you or your company will suddenly begin to take an interest, and in my opinion the majority of them will not support your position. You will alienate, in short, the very people who could do most to assist the interests of your company.
I for one intend to describe the action that you have taken, on my blog, and to seek support for Mr Jones. I think you will find that other bloggers will do the same.
We all receive unwelcome emails. We either find a way to deal with them or we get off the web.
4. Concluding comments
Readers of this blog are, by definition, sophisticated and worldly-wise individuals who know full well that major film studios do not read unsolicited screenplays. They don't read them because, decades ago, they grew tired of people complaining that the studio's latest hit was a rip-off of a script sent to them five years earlier. These days, all major producers carry insurance against such eventualities, and their insurance forbids them from even sniffing an envelope which contains an unsolicited script.
That, however, is not the point. I don't like it when big boys beat up little boys. I wouldn't like it if someone tried to close me down, for no good reason, and I don't lke it when it happens to Gerard Jones.
I have sent copies of my email to Carolyn Hampton to some of the top executives at Universal, in the (faint) hope that someone in that organisation might have a smidgen of common sense. You can find the names of the executives here, and some of the email addresses on Gerard Jones's site, here.
I would advise you that, not so long ago, no less an institution than the University of Glasgow caved in at the first hint of a letter from a lawyer -- or, in that case, alleged lawyer.
If you agree with my position on this matter, you may care to write to Carolyn Hampton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and say so. On the other hand, if you think she is dead right, you might also care to write to her. She will probably be very pleased to hear from you, because I don't think she'll get many like that.
By the way, since he cannot afford a lawyer, Gerard is hoping to interest the Electronic Frontier Foundation in his case; and this is an organisation which all blog readers should at least know about.
Friday, October 28, 2005
That being the case, I have further argued that it is wise for writers, and publishers too for that matter, to find out as much about emotion as is humanly possibly. And to that end I have also recommended that you should read Emotion, by Dylan Evans: this is a book which neatly summarises every key finding of modern research into emotion. And, since scientists don't actually know very much about emotion, the book is pleasingly short.
During one of my own periodic surveys of publications on the subject of emotion, I came across a book called Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality; this is edited by the same Dylan Evans, together with Pierre Cruse, and it is published by Oxford University Press.
As you would expect with that sort of publisher, Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality is an academic book, written for an academic audience consisting mainly of university lecturers and perhaps the occasional postgrad. Specifically, the book evolved from a conference organised in April 2002 by two Professors of King's College, London, as part of their research project into the function of the emotions. Should you wish to know more about this project, the information is available online.
Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality consists of 13 papers on various aspects of the overall topic. Since these papers/essays are all written by experts in the field, and are intended for an academic audience, they are pretty hard going for the general reader, and I would certainly not claim to have read all of the text myself. However, it is possible to get the drift of most of them. Whether you will think it worth the time and effort is very much a matter of temperament and background. In my own case, I spent many years working in the university sector, I ran an academic publishing company for part of that time, and I have a lifelong interest in the subject of emotion, so for me it was just about worthwhile. But I put it this way: borrow this book from a library first, before you buy a copy; that's what libraries are for.
Fortunately, there is an introduction which provides a handy overview.
It seems that, in the 1990s, research into emotion underwent something of a revival, after about a century of neglect; for scientists, emotions have long been a difficult and unrewarding area of study. Emerging from this renewed interest has been the view that the role which emotions play in 'rational' thinking and decision-making is a significant one; and, from the limited point of view of the writer/publisher, I certainly agree with that basic contention. Another idea is that emotions have played a part in evolution in that they somehow helped us to survive.
It is the connection between emotion and rationality which is of most interest to me. For thousands of years, the overwhelming weight of opinion among philosophers has been that emotion gets in the way of intelligent action. However, one of the central ideas to emerge from the recent renaissance of interest in the emotions is that this 'negative' view of emotion may not be correct. Much of Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality is therefore devoted to debating the age-old question of whether emotions are helpful or detrimental to rational thought and decision-making. And if that does not arouse your interest, you can stop reading this post right now.
I suggest to you, since you are a person interested in fiction and publishing generally, that emotion is a powerful factor -- possibly the vital factor -- in almost any decision which has to do with writing or publishing. A writer, for instance, is going to be powerfully influenced by emotion in deciding whether to write a novel at all; a publisher is going to be equally powerfully influenced by emotion in deciding whether to publish it, how many copies to print, and so forth. I cannot see how it could be otherwise. And it is therefore of highly practical interest -- not just theoretical -- as to whether or not the presence and influence of all that emotion is an aid to sound decision-making.
This is a topic which I will return to in the course of time, when I shall use the evidence presented in this book to discuss one key decision that writers have to make. For the moment, I will finish by noting two points.
First, all the distinguished scientists and thinkers whose ideas are displayed in this book have not actually come to any firm conclusion about the value, or otherwise, of emotion as a component of decision making. Second, even if they had reached a firm conclusion, there would remain a problem of applying those findings in real life.
It was ever thus. We are not the first to note the difficulty of applying even the most penetrating insights to the problems of real life. The English comedian Ken Dodd, for example, is known to have studied Freud's writings on the subject of humour. He apparently found the great man's views to be interesting, but not all that relevant. The problem being, Ken said, that Freud had never played the second house at the Glasgow Empire.
The Prof has written a book about literary prizes, and it's published by Harvard UP, no less. It's a study of the role that prizes play in 'transactions that involve symbolic capital'. Whatever that means. And it almost certainly isn't worth the trouble trying to find out.
The last Q and A exchange goes as follows:
Q. Should we distrust prizes as measures of cultural worth?Erm... Yes. Actually. It is. Certainly a lot better than the opinions of professors of Eng. Lit.
A. What I would say is, What's more reliable? What's better than prizes? Sheer popularity?
Of course there are prizes and prizes. Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association, describes a good way of awarding one in her comment on my post of 6 September about the so-called National Short Story award. There is also a science-fiction prize which is awarded by one of the fan groups (could it be the BFSA?) on the basis of members' votes; and, most importantly, there is an opportunity to vote 'no award' if you think the year has not been a good one. I know I've read about this somewhere, but despite determined googling this morning I can't find the details.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
In his most recent comment, Francis mentioned an interview with him on the Screenbiz web site, so I went to investigate. I wasn't expecting all that much, frankly, but in the event I was highly impressed.
I don't agree with all of Francis's ideas but his interview is absolutely crammed with valuable observations about the writer's lot. He clearly has a very low opinion of front-line publishers -- even lower than mine -- and he is quite sure that things are going to change. So am I. I would say that Francis's interview is essential reading for anyone who is contemplating getting involved in the book world; and even more essential for anyone who is struggling with the first, or twenty-first, novel.
The bit which caught my eye is Francis's suggestion that self-published writers should not think of themselves as self-published but as independent; as in, independent film-maker, or independent record company. This is the smartest piece of thinking I've come across in a long time.
If you never click on any other link from this blog, click on the one to the interview with Francis Ellen. And, while we're about it, here's a link to his novel The Samplist on Amazon.co.uk. Or, if you prefer, you can go to Francis's publishing site and read more about the book first.
A day or two ago I mentioned the new blog set up by Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash. And from time to time I have mentioned the rumbling row between Google, on the one hand, and various gangs of publishers and authors on the other. (Google, if you're new to this, want to make every book ever written available online so that people can find information when they need it; the publishers and authors are afraid that this will deplete their bank balances and want to make sure that they get paid every time someone checks a fact or a quotation.)
Now Richard Nash has weighed in to the debate (link via Galleycat). He ain't too impressed with the official US publishers' line on all this, and it's well worth taking a look at what he says.
Also worth noting is the existence of the INDICARE site, which deals with digital-rights management and related copyright issues. This was pointed out to me by Nicholas Bentley, who has made his own contribution there. INDICARE offers far too much to be absorbed quickly, and at first glance it seems to have an academic slant to it which may not appeal to everyone, but there are clearly some very important issues being debated there.
For the record, I am basically on the side of Google here. Sure I would love to make money out of the stuff I write, and to a modest extent I do. But I also believe that it's no good writing something and then hiding it behind several locked doors. If what you have produced is any good, then online readers who sample it for free may well buy a copy, or recommend it to their friends, or both. And even if they don't, then passing on the benefit of your experience and knowledge is surely worth doing without payment.
It's my belief that Google will win in the end, because that's what common sense suggests. But then, of course, I have to ask myself a question: Since when did common sense have anything much to do with what goes on in the book world?
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
The principal character in the novel is the real-life nineteenth-century poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne. He was, again as mentioned yesterday, a member of the Arts Club, though his drinking and other habits severely tested the patience of the members. In Chapter 5 of The Suppression of Vice I have dramatised once such incident which very nearly resulted in Algernon's expulsion: the Great Hat Race of 1867.
If, after reading this taster, you decide that you would like to read the whole novel, you may be able to find a copy in your local library (though this is most unlikely outside the UK). If all else fails you may have to buy one. Links are provided at the end.
Chapter 5Reginald Arthur Simpson and Algernon Charles Swinburne had both taken full advantage of the generosity of Lord Bannerdown’s sister. Champagne on arrival at the house in South Audley Street had been followed by a splendid selection of white and red wines with the buffet meal. Subsequently, large brandies had been taken as a very natural way of settling one’s stomach. Now they began to drink without accompanying food.
They were on their way, of course, to Mrs Pearson’s house in Meard Street. And whether they ever got there it is hard to say; afterwards, neither man could remember. What is certain is that by 11 p.m. they were both very drunk indeed, and one or other of them must have suggested rounding the evening off at the Arts Club. Perhaps they ran out of cash and decided that they would continue taking refreshment at an establishment which would allow them credit. In any event, it is known that they arrived at the Arts Club at approximately 11.05.
There were three eye-witnesses to what followed. One, a fourteen-year-old boy called Jimmy, was present throughout the entire incident. Another, a club servant named Jackson, saw the arrival of the two men. And the club secretary, Mr Marsden, was brought down to bear witness to the consequences of the two men’s folly.
Jackson and the boy Jimmy were on duty in the entrance hall of the Arts Club late on that June evening.
Jackson was a ex-soldier who had been in the service of the club for over twenty years. He was well known to most members, and he prided himself on knowing all their names in return, even those country members who seldom set foot in the place.
At 11.05 p.m., Jackson was behind the reception desk. Through the open front door (it was still quite warm outside), he caught sight of a cab drawing up in the street. From within the darkened cab there came a maniacal laugh, a sound with which Jackson was eminently familiar.
‘I knew at once it was Mr Swinburne,’ Jackson later told the club’s management committee. ‘I’d know that laugh anywhere. Very loud it is, full of fun. Sounds like a naughty schoolboy. Likes a good laugh, does Mr Swinburne. And whatever anyone may say about him – er, about his drinking and that – I would have to say that Mr Swinburne has always behaved like a perfect gent to me.’
Those present say that the committee was not over-impressed by this character reference.
According to Jackson’s account, the door of the cab was then opened from within, and Algernon, who was seated nearest the pavement, moved to step out.
Unfortunately, Algernon’s condition was such that, when he put out his foot to place it on the metal step below the door of the cab, he missed completely and fell headlong into the gutter.
‘He went down with quite a whack,’ said Jackson. ‘I saw him go. Arse over tip, he went. Whop! Right into the gutter. I would have run out and picked him up, but I didn’t like to desert my station. And besides, I heard him laughing again. There he was, crawling about under the cab, roaring his head off. Thought it was very funny, you see, missing his step like that. Found it a big joke. And what with him being, erm, well, comfortably lubricated so to speak, he managed to fall all loose and floppy, and didn’t hurt himself. You and me, if we’d done it, we’d have broken our leg or our neck. But Mr Swinburne, see, he was all kind of relaxed like, and he didn’t come to no harm at all.’
The committee members translated the double negative and drew their own conclusions.
Eventually (according to Jackson), Algernon managed to make his way between the horse’s hooves and out on to the pavement. Then, while he was cackling ‘Hee hee hee hee hee!’, he crawled on his hands and knees to the foot of the steps leading up to the club door. There he managed to pull himself upright on the balustrade.
In answer to a question, Jackson reported that no, Mr Swinburne was not wearing a hat at the time. He was in evening dress, very much dishevelled, his collar well askew, but his hat had been left elsewhere.
‘And then,’ said Jackson, ‘I saw Mr Simpson step down from the cab too. I realised pretty quick that he was drunk an’ all. But he was careful, sober drunk, if you know what I mean. Mr Simpson is one of them gentleman what knows when they’ve had too much, and instead of becoming very silly, like Mr Swinburne, they becomes very careful indeed and moves rather slow. And that was what Mr Simpson did, see. He stepped down from the cab, making quite sure that he had his foot on the step before he let go of the door. And then he held on to the cab with one hand while he felt in his pocket for a coin to pay the cabby. And he waited for the change, and then he made for the steps as well. Weaved I bit, I recall, but he managed to reach ’em without falling over.’
At this point, Jackson reported, he called out to attract young Jimmy’s attention. The boy Jimmy had been in the employment of the club for only a few days and was being taught the ropes.
‘I knew it was important to make sure that young Jimmy got to know the members,’ said Jackson, ‘and I knew he was in the cloakroom, cleaning the basins, so I went across, opened the door, and called him out.
‘By that time Mr Swinburne was climbing the steps. Going very slow, mind you, because he had to hang on to the side, but he was very nearly at the front door. I pointed him out to Jimmy. There you are my lad, I said. That’s Mr Swinburne. Mr Swinburne is one of the most famous poets in the land. And he’s one of our most distinguished members. Young Jimmy took a look at him, and he said, But he’s drunk, Mr Jackson. Ah yes, I said. He often is.’
Jimmy confessed later that he had been surprised by how small Mr Swinburne was. ‘His hair is the biggest part of him,’ he commented.
‘Once Mr Swinburne got inside the club,’ said Jackson, ‘I could see he was bent upon mischief. He had that glint in his eye – looked like a naughty schoolboy – and he was peering around, looking for something to make mischief with. I decided to go upstairs and alert Mr Marsden.’ (Mr Marsden, a retired army officer who had served in India, was the club secretary.)
Leaving young Jimmy in the reception hall, Jackson made his way upstairs. He went into the library, which was where he had last seen the secretary. But unfortunately Marsden was no longer there. If he had been – who knows – The Great Hat Race might never have taken place.
Downstairs, Jimmy was the sole witness to what transpired.
Jimmy was an observant lad. He had a weak constitution – inclined to be chesty, his Mum said – and he had spent a lot of time indoors, looking out of the window and watching the world go by. He now took careful note of what the strange gentleman with the red hair was up to.
According to the boy’s account, Mr Swinburne and the other gentleman – whom he now knew to be Mr Simpson – went into the cloakroom. Both men were staggering and weaving, having difficulty in remaining upright. Jimmy was familiar with the problem. Even at the age of fourteen he had seen enough drunk men to recognise the condition.
The cloakroom was long and narrow. On either side of it there were rows of pegs for the members’ hats and coats. (Lavatory facilities were in an ante-room.) That particular night, there were only about sixteen members present, but this meant, naturally, since they were all gentlemen, that there were sixteen hats hanging on the various pegs. Plus one or two which had been left there by forgetful members in the past.
Algernon and Simpson wandered like lost souls up and down the cloakroom for a moment or two, until eventually Algernon pointed at Simpson’s top hat, which he was still wearing, and said solemnly, ‘Take hats off indoors.’
Simpson at once acknowledged this important point of etiquette. He reached up, removed his hat, and hung it on a peg. Not without difficulty, it must be stated. Three attempts were necessary before hat connected to peg.
Then Algernon proceeded to take his own hat off. Which was impossible, because he wasn’t wearing one. Nevertheless, the task was attempted several times, resulting only in making his long red hair look even wilder and longer than ever.
When, eventually, Algernon realised that he had lost his hat, the discovery became a source of great amusement.
‘Lost me hat!’ he declared, slapping Simpson on the back with great good humour. ‘Hee hee hee hee hee! Lost me hat!’
Simpson, however, was still in that unamused and unamusable state of a very drunk man who is wondering whether he can avoid being sick, and he did not respond. Algernon laughed sufficiently for the two of them, wheezing and hee-hee-heeing fit to bust, having to support himself on Simpson’s shoulder.
Young Jimmy watched all this, totally bemused.
And then, Mr Swinburne – it was definitely Mr Swinburne, Jimmy said – Mr Swinburne said to Mr Simpson, ‘I know! Let’s have a hat race!’
Algernon looked eagerly around at all the hats, nearly twenty in all, including Simpson’s, and saw in their presence the resources for a most hilarious way to end the evening.
He proceeded to rush up and down the line of pegs, throwing the members’ hats on to the floor. There were top hats, silk hats, bowler hats, stovepipe hats, chimney-pot hats – oh, and a couple of servants’ caps. All were thrown on to the floor. Then – and it was surprising really that the little fellow didn’t fall over while doing it – he kicked the hats into position until they were in two lines in the centre of the room, running from the door at one end to the wall at the other.
Algernon next positioned his silent friend Simpson at the end of one of the lines of hats, and himself at the end of the other.
‘Now!’ said Algernon triumphantly. ‘What you do is – ’ And he proceeded to demonstrate.
It emerged that, to conduct a hat race, one gentleman had to stand at the end of each line, and then both gentlemen proceeded to bend their left leg, hold their left foot in the left hand, and then hop down the line of hats.
It was essential, of course, that with each hop the gentleman’s foot should land on the very top of a hat, thus pancaking said head-wear it into a state of oblivion.
Young Jimmy watched, fascinated. Hat-racing was a pastime previously unknown to him.
Upstairs, meanwhile, the club’s longest-serving servant had at last succeeded in locating Mr Marsden in his private room on the third floor. Jackson had not appreciated having to climb so many stairs as it made his old war-wound ache: he had once broken his leg when he fell downstairs at the barracks in Shaftesbury. Tripped on a loose step, he said.
Jackson knocked quietly on the door of Mr Marsden’s quarters, and, when the secretary appeared, he coughed discreetly and said: ‘Ahem – Mr Swinburne’s downstairs, sir.’
Marsden, who was evidently about to retire to bed, sighed heavily. ‘Drunk, is he?’
‘I’m afraid so, sir.’
Marsden sighed again. It was a sigh redolent of impatience, regret, and irritation. ‘Very well. I’ll come down.’
Marsden later told the management committee that as he and Jackson descended the stairs, they heard from below a hideous screaming sound which at first alarmed them greatly.
‘It sounded like an animal in pain,’ said Marsden. ‘But then, as we approached the cloakroom, we both realised that it was just the sound of Mr Swinburne, screeching with laughter.’
During Jackson’s search for the club’s chief executive, Algernon and Simpson had completed the first heat of The Great Hat Race. They had each hopped, unsteadily but successfully, from one end of the lines of hats to the other. As they went, each had counted aloud to record a foot hitting the target: ‘One, two, three, four!’ Et cetera. A good deal of uproar had been generated. At the far end of the room they had collapsed in a noisy heap, Algernon bellowing and shrieking with laughter, Simpson rather less loud but still noisy by the staid standards of a gentleman’s club.
Once they had pulled themselves to their feet, however, there had been an argument about who had come first.
‘I won, I won, I won!’ Algernon had vigorously asserted.
‘No, no,’ Simpson had insisted, quietly but firmly. ‘I won.’
Algernon had flapped away at his friend’s chest with both hands, like a very small boy objecting to being told that he had not got his sums right.
‘No, I won, I won, I won!’ he had shrieked.
The dispute had led to a re-run of the race, this time from the far end of the room to the door. And it was the uproar which occurred both during and after this second heat which Marsden and Jackson heard on their way down the stairs.
Heat two concluded with both Algernon and Simpson lying in a helpless heap by the door. Behind them lay the wreckage of sixteen members’ hats and a couple of caps, plus Simpson’s own hat; all of these were damaged past all hope of repair. It was a scene of carnage which would have shocked even the most battle-hardened old soldier, and Mr Marsden could scarcely believe his eyes.
Algernon continued to howl with hysterical laughter, while Simpson loudly protested that he had been the victim of foul play.
‘Cheat, cheat, cheat!’ cried Simpson. ‘You pushed me over, you damned cheating bastard!’
‘Lies, lies, lies!’ yelled Algernon. ‘I won, won, I won, ha ha ha ha ha!’
It was, Mr Marsden told the committee, a sight which left him deeply dismayed.
After a few moments, Algernon rolled over on to his stomach and found himself gazing at the black boots of authority. He looked up, and saw the stern, fierce face of the club secretary staring down at him. But not even this sight could sober Algernon Swinburne.
‘Hee hee hee hee hee!’ he howled.
Ready to buy? I'm sure you are. Copies are available at bargain prices from either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com; or, theoretically, from any other decent bookshop.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The Arts Club is a once-famous institution but I don't think I realised that it was still in existence. Founded in 1863, it was once the haunt of Millais, Swinburne, Kipling, and others. The web site is coy about membership rates but I doubt that it is cheap.
The Arts Club was, of course, the scene of that wonderful episode in Swinburne's life when he arrived drunk, with a friend. He and the friend found that the cloakroom was full of gentlemen's hats (everyone wore one in those days), and so they proceeded to throw them all on the floor and stamp on them. This reduced both men to hysteria, but the Club committee was not amused at all. I wrote about this incident in my novel The Suppression of Vice. And if I get a moment I might even reproduce that chapter here tomorrow. Come back and see.
John Morrison, the old boy who is the author of Anthony Blair -- Captain of School, is a former foreign correspondent and biographer of Boris Yeltsin, so he knows how to string words together. And his latest 'biography' is just out.
Published by Black Pig Books, A. Blair et cetera has garnered some positive plugs from the likes of Matthew Parris, Matthew Tempest, and Kevin Maguire. OK, so some of these are former colleagues, but they wouldn't embarrass themselves if they weren't genuinely enthusiastic.
Black Pig is the author's own company, and, like every other sensible person these days, he is publishing his own book and plugging it online. Extracts can be found on the Guardian web site.
Prime Ministers have always been ready targets for satire, as Private Eye has regularly shown, and this particular satire looks like a lot of fun. It's probably more fun for those who actually went to a school like the one described, and for those who are familiar with school stories from an era even earlier than that of Molesworth. But since bits of it are free in the Guardian you can find out for yourself whether it appeals.
There are, for example, articles about the art of writing, by some top names; a suggested reading list of classic material; a news page; information about a ThrillerFest to be held in Arizona in 2006; and a whole lot more. Oh, and there is also a free thriller-readers newsletter.
M.J. Rose is on the Board of Directors and also chairs the marketing committee. No, I have no idea how she does it either. Must be some sort of crossroads-at-midnight deal if you ask me.
If you haven't already made the acquaintance of the Scrivener's Error blog, you should do so forthwith. Lots of good stuff there, particularly on the continuing Google saga and other related copyright matters.
(See, for example, my mentions of Tom Evslin, Ken Ratcliffe, and Sheldon Goldfarb. I have also, by the way, mentioned the impact of digital developments in the movie business.)
Yesterday's Times carried an interesting article about a British rock band called Arctic Monkeys. What has happened, in short, is that these four lads have promoted their music on the web, on a strictly DIY basis. So successful have they been at this that they now have a number-one hit, having knocked the Sugarbabes off the top spot. The Sugarbabes, it seems, are a 'traditional' pop group whose record company have spent the traditional small fortune on publicity.
It seems that the Arctic Monkeys are worrying the established companies in the music business. Could they be the start of a new trend, in which pop stars are no longer puppets created by the in-house publicity machine, but are instead smart kids who make themselves into stars and then, if they feel like it, dictate terms to the record companies who are queuing up for their business?
This isn't the way the world is supposed to be, surely? So hadn't we better pay a bit more attention to this new-fangled internet thingy?
My point, I hope, is obvious. But before you start dreaming about winning the Booker with your self-published masterpiece, just remember that the Arctic Monkeys have managed to provide one essential element. If this DIY digital strategy is going to work, you have to create something that absolutely knocks the socks off people, to the extent that they tell all their friends about it and start acting as your unpaid but highly motivated p.r. persons. How many writers are there who can do that?
Monday, October 24, 2005
Last week, however, this once great company declared itself insolvent. Most commentators, such as the Times and Forbes.com, tell us that it was the digital revolution which finally killed off this famous name.
Now, let's just have a little think. Surely there are some publishing firms which have been around since the nineteenth century, aren't there? Even if they're no longer independent companies, they still exist as imprints.
Let's see now. There's Hutchinson, Chatto and Windus, Macmillan, Heinemann, Cassell, Hodder and Stoughton, and John Murray -- just to mention some of the bigger and better known ones. Could it be that the digital revolution will before long...
No, no. Couldn't possibly. Not in publishing.
The blog doesn't actually contain a link to the main Soft Skull site, but you can get there by deleting the word 'news' from the blog URL, or by clicking here. Soft Skull have an assorted list, including politics, poetry, and erotica, among others. And they seem to have an attractive dislike of authority. Worth a look, certainly.
It ain't gonna happen, but you might like to see how some people, at least, are thinking.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Who's There? will not apparently be free for ever, but for the moment it still is, and it's worth having a look at if you are a blogger or are interested in the blogging phenomenon from the point of view of marketing something. Thus it is, potentially at any rate, of interest to writers, who are for ever selling something or having it sold on their behalf.
As you will quickly discover, the ebook is aimed at business readers. For them, Godin argues that the mainstream media (MSM) are (he says is) dying, and hence a whole new approach is needed. The change, he suggests, is very inexpensive and very quick. The trick is to find the will to do it right. If you work in an industry which is very stuck in its ways (publishing, anyone?) it may be an uphill struggle.
One point which Godin makes early on is a point that I have been making over and over, particularly in the last couple of weeks, namely that the digitised world is changing fast. By way of illustration, he quotes the fact that, a year ago, a Google search for the word 'podcast' produced 24 matches. Do the same search today and you get 17,000,000 (more by now, probably).
But the internet does not solve all your problems. Naturally you want people to come to your blog/web site. But so do millions of other bloggers and site owners. And the danger, Godin says, is this. You (the businessman/marketeer) probably think that you live in a world where people care about you. But in reality nobody does. Hence it isn't much use going on marketing stuff as if we're still in 1969.
Now that really is what happens in publishing. Recently I have been sent a number of publishers' catalogues, by publicists who invite me to pick something to review. And you know what? Those catalogues are really 1969.
As far as blogs are concerned, Godin has lots of good advice, most of which, I now realise, I am continuing to ignore (e.g. 'make your entries shorter; use images'; and the like). But never mind. That's my privilege.
Anyway, Godin comes up with a few laws of the blogosphere. First, he says that it doesn't matter who you are; it's what you say. Which is true, up to a point. Next, he qualifies that by admitting that some bloggers are more equal than others, because they have an established name, either in the blogosphere or in some other field of activity. But then he also points out that some unknown bloggers do develop huge audiences pretty quickly. He quotes Gapingvoid.com as an example. Hugh McLeod, says Godin, had no business base to support him: no magazine column, no books, no help from the MSM; he just wrote and agitated enough to make people notice what he had to say.
(Godin's right, by the way -- McLeod's blog is well worth exploring: see for instance his advice on how to be creative. This is seriously good stuff, and nearly all of it is relevant to writers.)
The best blogs, says Godin, walk a fine line between civility and anarchy, between passion and privacy. Some bloggers let their hair down too much. We don't really want to know about your cat's operation.
At this point in the book, I scribbled down a comment which is not directly Godin-related but I will repeat it anyway. One commenter on one of my posts, who disagreed with it fairly profoundly, noted with an audible sneer that my work was not published by the mainstream press, so it was hardly surprising... et cetera. In other words, he took the view that a record of writing for the press is some sort of indicator of quality and value.
Well, leave aside the fact that I have written for the press -- lots of times actually, and the first time in 1955 -- but the idea that in order to have a valid point or to provide valuable insights you need to have first written a column for the Guardian or whatever, is surely mistaken. And the point that I want to make here -- with knobs on -- is that writing a blog or an ebook is actually better than writing for the press.
Better in the sense that I do not have an editor leaning over my shoulder and sucking his teeth. I can write 3 words on a topic, or 33,000; no one will stop me. I don't have to remember that I might meet Mr A. Famous-Writer at a publishing party later this week, and therefore had better temper my criticism. And I can provide hyperlinks which lead the reader in all kinds of directions that he would never go from a printed page. And so on.
Towards the end of his book, Godin reproduces his most popular blog post. It concerns size. Business size, that is. Once, he says, big used to matter. Big meant economies of scale and other benefits. But today, he claims (and he would know) small companies often make money faster than big companies. Small is the new big, but only when the person running the small thinks big.
Now, is that a message for publishers or not?
The article refers, of course, to the situation under English law. However, given the phenomenon of libel tourism, English law is now relevant to all sorts of people. And the principle of free speech, plus the need for the press to expose villainy, remains the same wherever you are.
Click here to go to the article, but the Times may ask you to register first.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Joshua is a bit shy of telling us exactly how old he is, but I would guess that he is now in his early thirties. He likes to present himself as a lifelong failure: e.g, in grade school he electrocuted himself when building a model; he started a rock band and at the first performance forgot the lyrics; and so forth. But in fact he is clearly a pretty sharp knife. For one thing, he went to Iraq to cover the war for Wired magazine, and was subsequently made a contributing editor, and they don't do that to fools and failures.
There are five principal chapters in this book. The first tells how Josh got involved in the armwrestling business: this, as you've probably noticed if you watch TV or movies, usually involves really tough truck drivers and the like making the veins on their foreheads stand out as they struggle to prove who is the stronger. A man who weighs less than 130 pounds is at something of a disadvantage.
However, it turns out that armwrestling, like boxing, has weight divisions, and in the lighter divisions there aren't many entries. So, one way and another, and despite getting thrashed, Josh suddenly became the fourth-highest-ranked lightweight armwrestler in the United States. He was also, it seems, the only vegetarian armwrestler in the history of the sport.
This fourth place got him on to the US team for the world championships. His experience in the sport was almost nil, and his achievements definitely nil. But they guys who were placed first, second, and third, all couldn't go to Poland, so Josh went.
He got thrashed there too, needless to say. For one thing he was up against guys who had had a leg blown off by a landmine or something, and so became lightweights instead of middleweights, but he probably would have lost anyway. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due: Josh Davis became the number 17 lightweight armwrester in the entire universe. (The guy who might have been placed 18th didn't turn up.)
All of this, you will have gathered by now, is an amusing account of (I suppose) a real-life experience, embroidered a little (or maybe a lot) in the telling. Either way, it's a lot of fun.
Despite his international success, Josh was at this point unemployed, and both his wife and his Mom were muttering darkly at him. Undeterred, Josh decided to travel to Spain and take up bullfighting. At this he was not much more successful than at armwrestling, but at least he emerged with his testicles still attached to his body, which is, apparently, more than can be said for some who fight bulls. What is more, despite the humorous tone of the text, it is quite clear that anyone who does what Josh did requires an exceptional amount of courage.
At this point, in a paragraph or two, Josh tells us about going to cover the war in Iraq and being made a contributing editor of Wired. Enough success, one might feel, for most of us. But Josh was still attracted by entirely unsuitable physical activities: unsuitable, that is, if you're five foot eight and 128 pounds. So he went in for sumo wrestling. A sport in which he found himself fighting a man who weighed 460 pounds.
Again, not surprisingly, Josh lost seven straight sumo matches. But he found that people still wanted his autograph because they admired his guts. 'You should have given up,' said one man. 'But you didn't.'
Josh, it turns out, is quite a good runner. And so for his next endeavour he took up running -- but backwards. Chiefly in India, but also in Italy. In both places, apparently, running backwards is a competitive sport. However, despite his ability to run forwards quite well, Josh still didn't win at the backwards bit. He came twentieth.
And finally the sauna competition. John has a complicated family, but (if I've got it right) his mother, stepfather, stepbrother, and sister, all decided to go to Finland and enter a sauna competition. And, if you're wondering how you can have a competition in a sauna, the answer is that the one who can sit there while they turn the heat up, and go on sitting there until his skin burns off, is the winner.
Joshua's Mom is a very good Mom, and while in Finland she did her best to get dates for her unmarried children. Josh is married, but the other two are a Lutheran pastor and a militant lesbian, so the dating business posed certain problems.
The account of the actual sauna competition is one of the more entertaining sections of the book. Preparation for entering a sauna which is allegedly running at a temperature of 220 degrees (Fahrenheit, presumably) seems to involve emptying several buckets of iced water over your head. Not a procedure which would appeal to everyone, I feel.
Josh didn't win this one either, despite suffering first-degree burns over most of his torso. The winner managed nearly 12 minutes in a temperature of 240 degrees. All in all, however, the family trip was a success in that Josh and his kin got to know each other better.
At the end of the book, Josh suggests to all of us that we should look around for something we might be great at. Perhaps we might be good ostrich jockeys; or a success at bar-stool racing. The coming years, says Josh, will be the era of outlandish sports. And, reality TV being what it is, he may be right.
All in all this is a thoroughly entertaining book, put together by a highly skilled writer with a pronounced sense of humour. It would make an excellent present.
For more on Josh, visit his personal web site. And, to find your own personal arena for success, go take a look at the UnderdogNation site; because everyone deserves a little time in the spotlight. Any spotlight. There is plenty to choose from: naked bug-eating, for instance; or ax shaving. You can't complain about lack of opportunity.
Monday, October 17, 2005
Bowker, big name in bibliographic data, have released some latest figures for book production in the English-speaking world.
Altogether, publishers in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, issued 375,000 new titles and new editions in 2004. Add in a few books imported from elsewhere, and you get about 450,000 books in English published in one year.
Broken down by country, Publishers Lunch reckons that the US issued 195,000 books, of which 25,000 were novels. The UK (with a population about one fifth that of the US) put out 180,000 titles.
Anyone worried about competition?
Publishers Lunch also mentioned a couple of agents' blogs that I hadn't come across before. First, Agent Kate. This one is full of lots and lots of good advice. Read, learn, and inwardly digest. Here, for instance, is a list of things Kate does not want you to write to her about:
1. Hurricane Katrina. Sorry Folks. Not Yet. The only good 9/11 books didn't come out until this year. Give it time.
2. Grieving spouses. Yes, I am a heartless bitch.
3. Paranormal Romance. You won't BELIEVE how many queries I get containing these two words a week.
4. Religious Conspiracy. The Da Vinci Code is so over.
5. Any detective formerly or currently working for the FBI, CIA, local, regional, or federal police, or in private practice. Why can't normal people solve murders? Butchers. More butchers should solve murders. Just think of the suspense.
6. Any work of fiction or non-fiction primarily written in letter form.
7. Fiction with a billion different narrators. Pick one and commit, people.
Another agent with a blog, this time not anony/pseudonymous, is Andrew Zack. Among other things, Andrew issues some monthly data about the number of submissions received by his company, and the number of people who are taken on as clients. Posts are by no means daily but appear to be useful.
Dark Fire wins
C.J. Sansom's historical mystery novel, Dark Fire, was reviewed here favourably on 22 March 2005. And now we hear from Publishing News that the author has won this year's Ellis Peter Historical Dagger award. This 'Dagger' is handed out annually for the year's best historical crime novel; judges are appointed by the Crime Writers' Association of the UK.
Thought for the day (which has probably been debated ad nauseam by the CWA, but you may care to consider it as an intellectual exercise): Should the phrase 'Crime Writers' Association' have an apostrophe at all? And whether you answer yes or no, should there be a hyphen in there somewhere?
Personally I think there is a case for omitting the apostrophe when the word which might be apostrophised describes, either on its own or as part of a compound adjective, what sort of noun it is, rather than who it belongs to.
In his book, Walsh takes the view that some usages are merely labels, not possessives. Dodgers' pitcher Don Drysdale..., he says, does not need an apostrophe. On the other hand, The award went to the Dodgers' pitcher Don Drysdale... is correct.
You may have noticed that this blog is driven by Blogger machinery, and that, right at the top of the page, there is a search facility, using Google. This search facility purportedly searches the GOB, and it has recently been 'improved'. And now it doesn't work.
Suppose, for instance, you want to know whether I have previously written about the novel "dark fire" and you type the title, in inverted commas, into the search box. You get a nil return. Or at any rate I do. But I know damn well that I've written about it before.
To find the reference, I had to go to the main Google search facility. There you type in "grumpy old bookman" plus "dark fire", and you get the answer you are looking for.
Sorry about that but it ain't my fault.
Saturday's Financial Times included an article by Nicola Christie about the 'digital revolution' in filmmaking. It's not directly relevant to the world of books, but it is a useful reminder that digitisation is changing everything; and fast. I keep banging on about this in relation to books, and it's all true, believe me.
I think one of the reasons why I am so conscious of the pace of change here is that I am comfortably old enough to remember what the world was like before we had any of this. Not only that, but I realise that even the experts were slow to catch on to the pace of change.
About twelve years ago I had a boss who was an American professor of electrical engineering. He was keenly interested in all things computational, and he had on his desk a state-of-the-art machine on which he had loaded every piece of software then known to man.
'You know,' he said to me one day, his voice filled with awe, 'pretty soon we shall have hard drives which will hold one gigabyte of data. I think that will be enough,' he added. 'Even for me.'
Today, folks, my one-year-old, pretty much bog-standard machine has a hard drive with 80Gb capacity.
Booktrade.info today has a link to an article in the Guardian. It seems that some senior figures in the crime-writing world have been saying what I've been saying ever since this blog began, namely that there is no reason whatever for supposing that genres such as crime and science fiction are in any way 'inferior' to literary fiction; rather the reverse, if anything. In particular, they suggest, the Booker Prize thing gets everything out of perspective. Guardian columnist Peter Preston seems to agree with them.
Friday, October 14, 2005
On the whole, I think it is probably going to be more interesting for a reader to absorb Burning Babies without knowing anything about the author, which is what I did, than to read it in the knowledge of what kind of person he is (or is said to be); so I will delay telling you anything about Noah Cicero's life, background, and intentions until after I've talked about the book.
The first thing to be said about Burning Babies is that it's short. By my count the whole book runs to only about 20,000 words. Which is fine by me; I have argued elsewhere that most novels are far too long.
The layout of the text is a little unorthodox. Noah goes in for hanging indents, big-time. Well, that's all right too. I can live with that. And the sentences are short. Ditto. Ed Murrow. Famous journalist. Secret of success of.
The setting is mostly Youngstown, Ohio, and the book is perhaps not so much a novel as a collection of sketches. Each chapter portrays events in the life of what the author himself describes as white trash. There is no plot, in the generally accepted sense of the term.
The characters are usually inarticulate, poor, often unemployed and/or homeless, frequently drunk or doped to the eyeballs, and all like that. They are, to use the Marxist term, deeply alienated. They live in, and come close to dying in, an industrialised society, and it ain't done them no good nohow.
From time to time the narrative, such as it is, is interrupted by the author's contemplations upon life. There is, for example, a longish list of aphorisms, many of which are both amusing and true. E.g.: sluts are people who know how to have a good time. Well, all right, so I'm easily amused.
The subject matter is dark and might be depressing but for the author's sense of humour. Which is dry, droll, and succeeded in making me laugh. A lot more than many books do.
You will have gathered by now, I hope, that this is very different from the kind of book that is usually reviewed here. It is not, I think we can safely say, commercial fiction. It does not fit readily into any genre. If it is anything, I suppose it is literary, but it certainly didn't make my lip curl, as does much of that stuff.
This novel is Noah's second. The first, The Human War, was published in 2003, and is described on Amazon.com, by a reader and fan, as an innovative piece of work consisting of 'sentegraphs'; i.e., apparently, 'prose so clipped that each line becomes poetry'. The reader describes the book as 'white trash existentialism'.
This gives you, I think, some idea of the kind of reader that Noah has so far attracted: people who understand what the word 'existentialism' means. Or claim they do. Personally I have never understood what it means. I first came across the word in a feature in Picture Post (you're too young to remember) in 1951, when it seemed to involve idle layabouts on the left bank in Paris who dyed their hair green, and, I imagine, did unspeakable things to each other in bed, though Picture Post didn't go into details. Dammit.
But I digress. Should you want to get a taste of Noah, before clicking over to Amazon.com to buy his book, you can find an excerpt from Burning Babies online at the Literary Vision Magazine. It's called 'How to handle a crackhead'. The online version varies a little from the final book version, and in particular it uses orthodox page layout.
Well now, I had pretty much got as far as this before I tried to find out anything about the author. What I had decided was that here was a youngish, ambitious writer, writing about the place he knows best, and doing so in a kind of realistic way, telling it like it is, but mercifully throwing some light on the dark scene by giving us a laugh now and then.
I did not particularly get the impression that here was a writer motivated by a desire to change society -- well, not any more than the rest of us, anyway. Or that out of a thousand and one voices in which he could have written, he had chosen to write in this one. I got the feeling that this was his natural voice; his speaking voice; and that he was very largely writing down, pretty much as they happened, events that he had witnessed or lived through. In fact I was beginning to hope that the inhabitants of Youngstown are as illiterate as he portrays them to be, because if any of them can read they might take exception to what he has said and come looking for him with a sawn-off shotgun.
And at that point I looked up his publisher (a v. small outfit called the Undie Press) and had a look at what they say about him.
Turns out that Noah is 25 (or so), lives in Youngstown, and is a 'novelist, essayist, playwright, short-story writer, and poet.' He was a founder member of the Underground Literary Alliance, but has now parted from them. He has been extensively published on the net, and he 'addresses with brutal Absurdist humor the day-to-day lives of urban-wasteland characters... The work, while highly accessible [I agree], is imbued with political critique and an existential examination of reality [huh?]. He has cited Sartre, Karl Marx and Beckett as central influences.'
Well yes. I suppose that is what Noah has told them. But I am slightly disappointed if it's true. I had hoped that Noah would turn out to be a kind of Douanier Rousseau or Grandma Moses of the book world -- someone who just does his thing and lets others read significance into it. But it seems (unless the publisher made it all up) that Noah is actually a deeply thoughtful man who wishes to bring about the revolution or whatever. Actually I liked my version better, but I still like the book.
The interesting thing is where Noah Cicero will go from here. If anywhere. He might decide to give up all this writing nonsense and just have some kids. Or he might go on doing more of the same, in which case, if he can find something which loosely resembles a plot, he might interest a bigger publisher. Or -- and this would be really interesting, to me at least -- he might put all this stuff to work in a more commercial medium. I can't help feeling there's a dark TV sit-com in there somewhere.
There are all kinds of possibilities. Erskine Caldwell, a name you never seem to hear of these days, had quite a lot of commercial success with his books about characters who were not exactly Harvard material. And Nelson Algren ditto. (Nelson, by the way, was a lover of Simone de Beauvoir, and was much better in bed than Jean Paul Sartre; which isn't saying very much, apparently. I hope ole Noah isn't going to be too influenced by Jean Paul.)
We shall see.
I can't say that I wholeheartedly urge you to go out and buy Burning Babies. But it is certainly different, and if you are bored with Bridget Jones or Harry P you could give it a whirl. It is just published, according to Amazon on 8 October, but according to the publisher on this very day.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize no less than three times; which means that he is about as distinguished as you can get. He is not, in my view, the world's most polished writer, and The World is Flat struck me as being a bit flabby in places; but at least you can understand what he means, which is more than can be said for some.
And what is he talking about? Well, the subtitle of the book is 'A brief history [not that brief: 475 pages] of the globalized world of the 21st century'. By saying that the world is flat, what Friedman means is that the playing field has been levelled, so to speak, by the growth of new technology. In particular, the new world is literally wired in a way which permits Indian accountants, for example, to complete tax forms for US citizens; and to do so at much less cost than an American accountant. Business, in short, is being taken away from the old world and being placed with the new.
Do you know anyone who has lost their job because the company's IT function, for example, has been transferred to Bombay? I certainly do. And you will surely have had the experience of ringing your local bank, only to be answered by a person with an Indian accent who introduces herself as 'Jennifer'. And of course it's not only India that's taking business: there's China, Malaysia, and a dozen others.
Friedman's claim that 'the world is flat' is a kind of extension, it seems to me, of Marshall McLuhan's idea of 'the global village' (though McLuhan is not in Friedman's index). Friedman's realisation that the world is flat came, he says, when he was playing golf in Bangalore, southern India, and someone advised him to aim a shot at either the Microsoft or IBM buildings. This minor incident made Friedman realise that the internet, mobile phones, broadband, and all the rest of it is undermining the power and superiority of the developed western world and is putting power into the hands of a whole new generation who are based in what are, to us, far-off and underdeveloped nations.
Well, I haven't quite had a 'world is flat moment' myself. But I've certainly had a 'global village' moment. About ten years ago I found myself in the city of Haarlem, in Holland. The central square is surrounded by mediaeval buildings -- old Europe, in fact. I was there one Saturday night in summer, and in the middle of this square an American rock band, with black musicians, was playing to a large and very cosmopolitan crowd.
After we had listened to the music for a while, my family and I went in search of a restaurant. And since the Dutch once colonised Indonesia, it isn't surprising that we found an Indonesian restaurant. There we were served, equally unsurprisingly, by an Indonesian waitress. She didn't speak English, but she spoke French; and so we ordered our meal in French.
As for the 'world is flat' stuff: well, as you may have noticed (see links to your right), I run a microscopically small publishing company called Kingsfield Publications. It isn't really a company at all; it's just me; I do everything. But the 'company' is listed in various online directories, and three times within the last few weeks I have had phone calls from bright, keen, eager young people with Asian accents asking me if I am interested in having them do my pre-press work, or whether I am interested in software which will keep track of my royalties.
Friedman gives plenty of examples of this kind of thing. If you have a CAT scan in an American hospital, at four o'clock in the afternoon, it is likely that the scan will be read overnight (US time) by someone in India or Australia. The results are then ready to be dealt with the next morning. And, as already mentioned, Friedman met a man in Bangalore, India, whose company had pioneered a work-flow software program which enabled his employees to handle the tax returns of US citizens. The firm is handling several thousand such returns already.
The World is Flat is written, as you would expect, mainly from the perspective of an American; a thoughtful American, who recognises that things are not going to stay the same, and that they may work out very much to his nation's disadvantage unless someone gets his arse (sorry, ass) into gear pretty damn soon. Nevertheless, the book is equally relevant to Europeans, if not more so.
But what relevance does this have, you may be wondering, to the book trade? Well, Friedman's index contains no entries for publishing or books. However, you don't have to get very far into Friedman -- in my case it was page 72 -- before you begin to realise that the book publishing business is somewhere back in the stone age. At least as far as my experience goes. It may be that someone, somewhere in book publishing, has wised up to all this, is on top of it, and is exploiting it to the full. If so, they are not known to me.
From where I sit the book business looks very sleepy indeed. Not complacent -- the uproar about the Waterstone's/Ottakar's merger shows that -- but sleepy. Because it seems to me that, faced with the impact of new technology and globalisation, the merger of a couple of UK high-street book chains is well-nigh irrelevant. There are, of course, experienced judges who disagree -- see the comment on my piece of 29 September -- but that's the way it looks to me.
As far as writers are concerned, there is some good news. With snags.
Friedman holds the view that the new globalised world of the twenty-first century will offer plenty of good jobs and opportunities for people who have the knowledge and ideas to seize them. So the message is: constantly update your skills.
Friedman also points out that there are two kinds of work: fungible and non-fungible. Fungible work can easily be digitised and transferred to lower-wage locations. Work that is non-fungible cannot be treated in that way. Television assembly-line workers' jobs are fungible; a brain surgeon's skills are not; and ditto, one assumes, about the writing of fiction.
Having said that, one really cannot be too damn sure. We already have the example of several big names in commercial fiction off-loading the actual writing of their novels on to bright young people with talent. And there are some very bright people indeed in Asia; quite bright enough, I feel, to be able to fake an American (or British) accent. And they work cheap, too.
However, there is another good piece of news for writers and publishers. There are already many examples of European and American companies having business taken away from them by small-time operators working from a back room either in the developed world or in far-off places. It follows, therefore, as I remarked only the other day, that people with enough smarts can take advantage of this situation.
The internet makes it possible for an online operation to have global suppliers, global customers, and global competitors. The opportunity is therefore there, in principle, for a small publisher based anywhere in the world, to have a worldwide success. Which is yet another reason why yesterday's impassioned defence of small bookshops, by Alan Bennett, seems to me to be worthy, and kind, but entirely beside the point. Much as we all love such places, economics suggest that they are pretty much doomed, and all the smart thinking has already moved somewhere else.
Well, there's a whole lot more in Friedman. Stuff about global warming, the danger of nuclear proliferation, terrorism (which also benefits from a flat world), and much else. But I think you've got the idea by now.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Lulu.com first came to my notice perhaps a couple of years ago. It appeared at that time to be just another place where self-publishers could go to get their book into print. And at that point it did not seem to me to be very different from the (recently) much criticised PublishAmerica, or the firm which is now known as AuthorHouse (originally 1st Books). Or any one of a number of others.
Lulu is still a place where you can get a novel or a memoir published. But it is also rather more.
One of my other interests, besides books, is photography, and a month or so ago there was a flurry of discussion, on one of the groups that I subscribe to, about the possibility of publishing photographic books through Lulu.
Now that really made my ears prick up. Because I know quite a lot about printing illustrated books, and believe me, it ain't easy.
I had heard, distantly, that it had become possible to publish full-colour illustrations through print-on-demand presses, but I had got the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that the facility was confined to children's books which were printed on a fairly stiff card. As far as I knew, most POD printing facilities could only offer to print black and white line illustrations, or low-quality black and white images.
So I went over to Lulu and had a look. What I found there surprised me. I discovered that some reasonably well-known names are using Lulu to print and publish collections of their photographs, either in black and white or full colour. And, so far, I have not picked up any gossip to the effect that the quality is unsatisfactory.
People who take photographs on a professional basis, or a serious-amateur basis, are notoriously fussy about the reproduction of their images. So here we have a situation which at least merits further enquiry.
To see an example of what I mean, go take a look at these Lulu links. First, a book about California by Noah Grey. This runs to 147 pages and costs $49.99. (With all these examples, you can click on a preview button and see a PDF file with some sample illustrations.) Next, Visions, by Wanda Sanders-Young; 96 pages at $34.96. And third, Woofers, by Paul Treacy. A particularly nice one, this, I think; 56 pages at $17.93.
Now -- I have by no means fully explored the Lulu.com site, and I haven't quite figured out how they do the printing. But it is probably some form of inkjet. And if you know anything about the printing of fine-art photographs by inkjet printers you will know that there have been problems of longevity. In short, the pictures tend to fade with age and exposure to light.
There are also, of course, endless problems about printing in colour, even when you're talking big-time printers with million-copy print-runs of a high-quality fashion magazine. If a professional printer manages to get within 5% of his target colours, he probably feels he's doing a good job.
Whether these technical problems, of fading and colour control, have been fully dealt with by Lulu.com I don't know. But in the meantime it looks as if the results are good enough to satisfy most people.
Now this, I have to say, constitutes a hugely dramatic change in circumstances. Only a couple of years ago, if you had asked me how to go about self-publishing a book of photographs I would have told you to forget it. You would have had to order a minimum print-run of 2,000 copies, to bring the cost per copy down to anything like a reasonable level; and you would have been left with a huge bill and a garage full of unsold books.
But now, with Lulu, you can do the job for absolutely minimum cost; and you don't need to keep stock; you can have copies run off as and when they're needed. True, you will have to master the technique of preparing a PDF file; and true, the full Adobe Acrobat program for creating PDFs costs a lot of money. But there are cheap alternatives to Adobe Acrobat: Serif Page Plus, for instance. And if I can manage to produce PDFs, anybody can.
Ah yes, I hear you saying. But even if you print copies of a book at an amazingly cheap cost, you are still faced with the problem of selling the books. And indeed you are. But you may not actually want to "sell" any, in the traditional sense.
You might wish, for instance, to produce a set of wedding photographs which, instead of being pasted in the traditional album, are printed in the form of a book, which could be distributed free to key members of the family; or even to every guest; or to every guest who wanted to buy one.
And if you're a professional portrait painter, for example, you could publish a book showing many of your recent portraits and use it as a sales tool.
And so on. The possibilities are enormous, and to my mind quite astonishing. It is only about ten years since a colleague first showed me what was then called a bubble-jet printer; and look how far and how fast we have come since.
Another reason to take a long look at Lulu is that it offers the facility to produce and market other things, beside books: CDs and DVDs, for example. Or ebooks. And you can make your own calendars from art work or photographs. Take a look at the corporate profile.
And, finally, another interesting thing about Lulu.com is that the company is sponsoring the Blooker Prize. Yes, that L is meant to be there.
The Blooker Prize is the world's first prize devoted to books which originated from, or are based on the content of, a blog. Which is a good excuse to remind you that, if you are looking for a modestly priced present for a bookish friend, you could do no better than give said friend a copy of the book version of the Grumpy Old Bookman. This is available from either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com, and in either case at a generous discount.
And, yes, thank you for offering, but there is no need for you to nominate the GOB print version for the Blooker Prize. The rules allow me to do it myself. And I will, I will.
Oh, and by the way. I nearly forgot (typical). I have Maud Newton to thank for this one. Yet another reason for visiting Lulu.com is that they offer a way to use that enormous pile of rejection letters. Some people paper a room with them, but Lulu has a better idea: you can have them printed out on toilet paper.
Admittedly, this service is a little expensive. (And perhaps they don't intend it to be taken very seriously.) But think how much better you will feel as a result.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Frankly, the Booker Prize is of no great interest to me, because many decades of reading have demonstrated that the books which get shortlisted for it are the kind of books which, year in and year out, fail to entertain me in any way shape or form. So I'm not going to say anything more about this year's candidates. If you wish to investigate the matter, you can start with the Times report and move on from there. Acre and acres of comment will appear in every major newspaper and virtually all of the literary blogs: see blogroll to your right.
What I am going to do this morning is reprint an essay on the Booker which I wrote last January; and I'm going to do that for two reasons.
First, the essay provides many reasons as to why we should not, perhaps, take the Booker Prize quite so seriously as many do. And second, the essay has been chosen for inclusion in a kind of 'best of the bloggers' anthology which will be published next month.
The title of the anthology is 2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere, and the editor is Tim Worstall. Publisher is that new outfit, The Friday Project Ltd. The books is already listed on Amazon.co.uk, so you can nip over and pre-order your copy now. It will be essential reading, no doubt.
Incidentally, I see that from Amazon that those who ordered this book also ordered The Big Book of Masturbation and The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust; so tastes are clearly eclectic here.
Meanwhile here is my essay from January last. Its title was:
The Booker Prize and absolute nonsense
Companies that sponsor prizes do so chiefly, I suspect, to obtain cheap publicity. And in that regard the Man Booker company, sponsors of the (Man) Booker Prize for fiction, do better than most.
Last week, for instance, there were masses of stories (e.g. Telegraph and Guardian) just about the choice of a chairman for the judges, and whether the judges will actually read the whole of each book or not.
But that is not what I want to witter on about today. No, what I thought I would do is draw your attention to the merciless winner-take-all mechanism which accompanies this annual jamboree.
When you and I are faced with a book, and asked to say whether it is a masterpiece or an overblown piece of self-indulgent nonsense, there is no universally recognised scale against which we can measure the book and come to a clear conclusion. Judging a book is a matter of taste and sensibility, and you are likely to maintain that your taste and sensibility are superior to mine. (You are probably right, since my taste is notoriously vulgar.)
As far as the Booker Prize is concerned, it is safe to say that the choice of the ‘best’ book of the year is inevitably a matter of opinion rather than fact. And not even unanimous opinion. In almost every year there are press reports of disagreements among the judges, and in some years we hear of ‘compromise choices’ or the chairman’s casting vote. We also know that, in one particular case, the eventual winner was unusually ‘fortunate’.
In 2002 the winner of the Booker Prize was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Many newspaper reports at the time told us that this book had been rejected by Faber, the firm which had published Martel’s earlier work; the book had also been turned down by at least five other major publishers. So if Canongate had not taken the book, it is likely that the manuscript would have remained in the author’s filing cabinet. Furthermore, if the book had been accepted by one of the bigger firms, it would not even have been entered for the Booker Prize in the first place, because the big firms (only allowed two nominations) have to enter their most famous authors; if they don’t, the famous authors are likely to go elsewhere.
The Life of Pi saga provides a beautifully clear demonstration of the random nature of decision-making in publishing. Here we have a book which was turned down for publication by numerous ‘good judges’. It was entered for the Booker Prize by a small firm which had no stronger candidates. And it so happened that the particular set of judges who were reading in 2002 happened to like it best. Or a majority of them did.
All rational observers will agree that Life of Pi, or any other Booker winner, cannot sensibly be described as the best book of the year in any absolute sense. The Life of Pi episode shows us, undeniably, that there might have been other books that year which were either not published at all or were published by big firms which were not able to submit them -- books which could, quite possibly, have found favour with the judges if they had been submitted. The most that can be said of the book which wins the Booker Prize is that it is the one which (of those presented for consideration) the judges liked the best.
But observe, please, what happens when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced (in any year). What happens is that the media, the critics, and the public, all behave as if there is some absolute sense in which the winner is the best book of the year. They act as if the book has been held up against a ruler, a universally agreed scale, and has been found, indisputably, and scientifically, to be ‘better’ than any other.
A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was given a copy of the New York Review of Books, in which there was a lengthy review of the most recent Booker winner; the article runs to 108 column inches. Similar things no doubt happen every year. And this ‘star treatment’ will be repeated in newspapers and magazines throughout the English-speaking world.
It is the winning novel, please note, which is treated in this way – not the runners-up; and certainly not the good books which were not submitted by their publishers; and definitely not the books which didn’t even make it into print. It is the winning author who will be interviewed on television, invited to writers’ conferences, and made the subject, in due course, of earnest PhD theses by bespectacled young people who can think of nothing better to do with their time than waste it by deconstructing a novelist’s prose. This is the winner-take-all mechanism in its most unforgiving form.
The runners-up, the non-shortlisted books, and the unpublished books, all those are losers who disappear from our sight, never to be heard of again. And yet we know, beyond doubt, that but for the workings of randomness, which favoured the winner and disfavoured the others, there might be one, ten, or a hundred other books which could, in different circumstances, have proved to be more enticing to the judges than did the eventual winner.
The winner-take-all mechanism in the book world is thus shown to be brutal, vicious, and deadly.
There is no point in complaining about it: it is just the way things happen; the world in general, and the book trade in particular, is unfair, unjust, and patently absurd in its workings. But all those who work in the book trade, in particular those who write and sell novels, need to be aware of this situation. And they need to ask themselves whether a business in which randomness is so powerful a factor in the distribution of rewards is a business which sensible people should allow themselves to be involved in.