Friday, April 29, 2005

Criminal tendencies

The Book Standard features an article by Gerald Bartell in which he reports the views of Otto Penzler, a well known crime fiction editor and publisher.

Penzler's view, apparently, is that female authors of crime fiction are not worthy of being given the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the Year. The Edgars, by the way, are awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America organisation, which is a club drawing its membership from published crime writers. Each year they give a series of Edgars (named after the alleged founder of the crime story, Edgar Allan Poe) in various categories, such as Best Novel, Best Young Adult, et cetera. Naturally, only crime fiction books are eligible.

Penzler's argument, if he is correctly quoted, is that women write only 'cozies' -- crime books of an old-fashioned, non-threatening, domestic kind. In these cozy novels, murders get done without much blood, and the butler often dunnit. Such books, according to Penzler, 'are not serious literature. They don't deserve to win.' They tend to contain recipes too, he adds. And references to cats. And they just don't cut the mustard, not with ole Otto.

OK, so if women don't deserve to win the Best Novel award, who does? Men, naturally. 'Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature.' And it only seems to count if it's hardboiled. That's the stuff for best book. At least according to Penzler.

Dear me. I haven't read such a load of old bollocks since I don't know when. Well, since the last time I read anything by a professor of English Literature, actually.

Even if I thought Penzler was right, which I certainly don't, I would still make the forecast that several tons of bricks are about to fall on his head. Offending all those readers of cozies, and offending every woman in America as well? What's he up to? Trying to find a quick way to commit suicide?

In any case, this whole hardboiled = art = literature = good, and cozies = non-art = entertainment = bad, is clearly complete drivel from start to finish. For a more detailed explanation of why, see chapter 5 of The Truth about Writing.

This writing life

Ian Hocking posted some interesting comments on my piece about writers taking charge, and he also has his own blog, This Writing Life. Any UK-based writer who is hoping to find a way into print might give Ian's blog a look, particularly as it seems he has some reservations about the firm which put out his own book. For better or for worse that that firm is, I note, now closed to submissions.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Alan Furst: Dark Voyage

There is a phenomenon in life known as Murphy's Law; in England it is sometimes called Sod's Law. If you know nothing about it, you can read the details here, but the general principle is that, if something can go wrong, it will; generally at the most inopportune moment.

It seemed to me, a couple of years ago, that Murphy's Law had begun to operate, big-time, in the career of Alan Furst. But in some respects it now turns out that I was wrong.

What happened was this: Alan Furst began writing thrillers about thirty years ago. He seems to keep fairly quiet about the first four (they are not listed on the 'Also by Alan Furst' page in his latest), so perhaps he feels that they are not up to his normal high standard. But by the time he wrote Night Soldiers (published in the UK in 1988) he was well into his stride.

All of Furst's books are set in and around the second world war, and many of them are located in occupied France, chiefly Paris. According to his interview with Robert Birnbaum, Furst has lived in Paris for some time (though he is, I believe, Canadian in origin). And you don't have to read very much of Furst to discover than he is enormously well informed about Europe in general, and the history of the second world war in particular. The books are really quite stunning in their grasp of events, and in their portrayal of human beings as they behave under the imminent threat of capture, torture and death.

So far so good. But up to about 2002, Furst remained something of an unknown. He had never had a really big seller, and frankly was never likely to, because his books are much too subtle and demanding for the average Joe. And if that sounds condescending, tough: it's simply true. The typical Jack Higgins reader is not going to find Furst easy to read: in order to appreciate Furst, you need a much more detailed knowledge of European history than the average sophomore is likely to possess.

But then in 2000 (as near as I can figure), Furst changed his publishers in the UK. He left HarperCollins and went to Orion, which first published him under the Gollancz imprint (Kingdom of Shadows) and now under Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Blood of Victory and Dark Voyage).

And where, you may be asking, does Murphy's Law come into all this? Well, it comes in right here. When Orion took Furst over, they gradually seem to have realised that they had got themselves a real gem. So for his next book they decided to splash out some money, with displays in Waterstone's windows and stuff like that. But, er, there was a problem. Murphy's Law dictated that Furst's next book (Blood of Victory ), on which so much publicity money would be spent, and on which so many hopes had been built, would not be all that good.

And I have to say that I found it most disappointing. I didn't even finish it. Of course, it may just have been me. But at least one reviewer on amazon UK agreed with me.

Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Dark Voyage. And fortunately, all is well.

Perhaps it will simplify things if I say that Dark Voyage is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect a novel to be. It tells an interesting story (set, of course, in the early years of the second world war); the characters are all too human, and constitute a wonderful sample of various nations; and the background is totally convincing (though Furst does not hesitate to bend the historical facts to fit his fiction if necessary, because this is a work of imagination, after all). And finally, the work is genuinely suspenseful: with ordinary thrillers writers you are never in much doubt that the good guys will win in the end, but with Furst, dammit, you are never quite sure.

The reason why you are never quite sure is because the author never has the slightest illusions about the enemy. Furst, being exceptionally well versed in European history, knows full well that, at the time he is writing about, the Germans were the nastiest and shittiest people on the face of the earth; with the exception, of course, of the Japanese, who contrived, somehow, to be worse.

I make no comment, please note, about the Germans and Japanese of today. Except to say that I am quite sure that they are now entirely different: they gladly help old ladies to cross the road, and they devote the whole of their spare time to good works among the poor and needy. They shed sweetness and light wherever they go. But in the second world war, to put it as politely as possible, they were not very nice.

Dark Voyage is warmly recommended. Better still, start with Night Soldiers and work your way to the present from there.

There is an official web site for Alan Furst, but it has one of those fancy Javascript (or some such) intros, and even if you skip that then the rest of it doesn't work properly; at least not on my browser. You may have more luck.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Read and return -- Paradies (sic)?

A recent commenter wondered if I had anything to say about the Read and Return scheme which has been introduced by Paradies Shops in the US. The scheme allows readers to purchase hardcover, best-selling books and then receive a refund of half of the purchase price when they return the book.

My only comment is that this is pretty much a rent-a-book system of the kind that used to operate in the UK. A few decades ago, both WH Smith and Boots used to run huge libraries, usually in the back of their nationwide chains of shops. You either paid a substantial annual subscription, and could then borrow books for free, or you paid so much per book.

Not only that, but in my home town, in the 1950s, there was a lively entrepreneur who used to run the same sort of operation, only in his case he drove round with a van full of books and called at your door. He came every week, and you paid a modest fee for the loan of a book or two.

The big attraction of these commercial libraries was that they had large supplies of the current bestsellers, and the rental was a lot less than the purchase price of the book. True, the so-called public libraries, financed by local taxes, also bought quite a lot of big sellers, but you had to 'reserve' a hot favourite, and you often had to wait months before you got to read it.

Somewhere along the line, in the 1960s or '70s, the bean-counters must have concluded that these commercial libraries were not sufficiently profitable. This probably happened when cheap paperbacks began to make inroads into the market. In any event, the rent-a-book libraries disappeared.

Well, almost. They survive, in essence, in small secondhand bookshops in dingy back streets, or on market stalls. The deal is, you buy a secondhand paperback, let's say for half the price of a new one; and then when you've read it you take it back and you get allowed half of what you paid for it as credit towards another purchase.

The arithmetic isn't too complicated, and although the book will eventually fall to pieces the scheme does produce repeat customers, and in the long run it does generate more profit per book, for the bookseller, than a single sale.

So now we have a new variation on the scheme, this time with hardcover bestsellers. And it is presented, of course, as a 'unique book deal'. Which it ain't.

There is no reason, in principle, why this shouldn't work. But I doubt that the big-time publishers will like it much, and there are, we must not forget, a number of writers, e.g. A.S. Byatt, who apparently think it is practical to arrange for authors to get a second royalty on secondhand books.

As I said on 3 February, that'll be the day.

Hotel Chelsea: commercialisation of the blog?

A number of alleged gurus, such as Hugh Hewitt, have recommended that businesses should set up blogs as a means of improving the public image of their company. This is not a strategy that overwhelms me with enthusiasm, but I suppose it has its merits.

Anyway, yesterday I got an email from the anonymous author of a new blog, which has the name Living with Legends: Hotel Chelsea. The email was addressed to all 'lit-bloggers' and informed me that the new blog will focus on books, art, and music created by former and current residents of New York City's Hotel Chelsea.

So I paid it a visit.

Well, as blogs go, this is a very professional one. So professional, in fact, that it seems to me quite clear that this is a commercial enterprise, set up to spread the word about the Hotel Chelsea, and to attract custom. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing whatever. So long as we don't confuse it with something created by a part-time amateur, just for the love of the thing.

At present, the links to articles about the Chelsea, and to works produced by former residents at the hotel, seem to me to be a bit more rewarding than the posts. But the blog is (I assume) brand new, so that may change. Meanwhile, I am not sure that a post which tells us that the hotel has cockroaches is striking quite the right note to attract overnight guests -- but then who am I to tell New York hoteliers their business?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Paul McAuley: Whole Wide World

A few weeks ago I recommended White Devils, a science-fiction thriller by Paul McAuley. Happily, I am now in a position to speak enthusiastically about another of McAuley's books, Whole Wide World, hereinafter referred to as WWW.

As I explained last time, McAuley has been around for a while. He has written about ten novels and many short stories. Along the way he has also won several prestigious prizes in the field of SF.

WWW, as its title suggests, is largely concerned with the internet and the flow of information in and around it. The novel is set in a near-future England, mostly London. This future England has been attacked by terrorists, in a series of events known as the Infowar, and for a while at least all electronic communication was wiped out. Now the systems are being built back up, but a new generation of Puritans has acquired massive influence. Porn is illegal in the UK, and there are surveillance cameras on every street corner, tracking anyone and everyone, wherever they go. All information is tightly controlled.

It is in this world that a vicious murder is committed. A young woman is executed, live, as it were, in front of the webcams, and her murder is witnessed by whoever has logged on, anywhere in the world.

The book is essentially a murder mystery. The lead character is a Detective Inspector who is despised by his colleagues and has been posted to an administrative backwater. He takes it upon himself to track down the killer.

So far so orthodox, of course. Down these mean streets, and all that. As usual, everything depends on how well the plot is handled. And in this case the handling is quite exceptional.

It is, I think, a measure of McAuley's skills if I say that immediately before and after reading WWW I tried three other thrillers, all of them written by famous names.

The first, by a huge American seller, was a thoroughly researched and carefully constructed book; the technique was more than competent. Sadly, however, I found it all a bit too manufactured, and gave up after about fifty pages.

The other two books were by British authors, both of them well known in the thriller genre, and both books had covers which carried enthusiastic puffs from big names. But in one case I thought the characters were pure cardboard, and in the other I found the events just too depressing. Yes, we all know that cops get burnt out, and that they destroy their own marriages, and so forth. But it ain't fun to read about, and I have this curiously old-fashioned view that reading a novel ought to be an entertaining. I got through about forty pages of each of these two before abandoning them, but the McAuley book I found easy to read.

The unpleasantness factor is certainly a difficulty when you are writing about violent sadistic murder. I don't know about you, but I have had more than enough of serial killers. So anyone who, like McAuley, chooses to write about such crimes has some serious obstacles to overcome, at least where this reader is concerned.

Fortunately, McAuley seemed to me to get everything just right. The gore is realistically described, but not in so disgusting a manner that one just wishes to switch off. The lead character seems to be a real person, as opposed to something manufactured on a computer, and the post-Infowar world which is described seems to me to be depressingly credible, and more than a little likely to come about. In short, you are given something to think about, if you are the thinking sort, in addition to a first-class mystery story about whodunit and why.

Finally, there is a love story. And, although our hero does not emerge smelling of roses, with everything forgiven -- far from it -- the author does end on a note of optimism. Which is fine by me. There is enough stark tragedy in the real world, thank you. As anyone living in the UK and reading the crime reports will have noticed over the last few days.

Writers taking charge?

If you are a young, ambitious novelist, still hoping to get your first contract, you may well be feeling a tad confused.

In the first place, all the prestige and power seems to reside in half a dozen big-time firms which are based in London (or New York, if you're an American). And yet, if your ear is to the ground, you cannot but have heard various horror stories about how these guys pick you up (if you're exceptionally lucky), publish one or two books without making the slightest attempt to market them, and then dump you. What kind of a life is this, you ask yourself.

Good question. And fortunately or unfortunately it is not a question that you are likely to have answered by direct experience, because it is very unlikely (of the order of 4,000 to 1) that you will be offered a contract by a big-time firm.

What to do then?

Increasingly, young and ambitious writers are becoming aware of the smaller, independent publishing companies. There, it seems, you may be in with a chance.

This is certainly true. You have an improved chance, anyway. And if you are interested in the small indie firms, you should definitely read what the boss of one of them has to say. Johnny Temple's valuable article, An Argument for Writers Taking Charge, can be found (via, on AlterNet.

Just by way of a taster of some of the good stuff that is contained in Temple's article, here is what he has to say about typical sales figures:

If you want to deflate the expansive ego of a fellow writer published by one of the big houses, just get access to BookScan, an industry marketing device that tracks actual sales via bookstores and other retail outlets. Nine times out of 10, the BookScan data will burst your friend's bubble, since agents and editors routinely shield writers from such numbers. This is understandable, because the numbers are too often depressing.

Although it is notoriously imprecise, BookScan does reveal the distressing reality that most books sell in very small quantities--even those that garner positive reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. National Book Award finalist Christine Schutt has been ridiculed for the fact that her book had sold scarcely 1,000 copies at the time of her nomination. But the fact is, other than blockbuster hits, few books sell more than a couple of thousand copies. When a writer tells you how many copies his book has sold, you can usually divide that number by two or three to get closer to reality--though this may be a reality of which the writer himself is unaware.

These figures, please note, relate to the US market, which is at least four and maybe five times as big as that of the UK.

I must say I am faintly astonished by the constant stream of articles, flooding on to the internet, which are, on the one hand, critical of big-time publishing and its various practices, and, on the other, recommending that writers should think long and hard about alternatives. At one time it seemed to be just me.

If you want to read my 72-page views on the subject, you can get a free download of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile by clicking on this link.

Speaking of authors taking control, you should always bear in mind that some authors have gone in for marketing their own stuff (whoever publishes it) on a big-time basis. The greatest of these, in my view, is M.J. Rose, whose Buzz, Balls and Hype blog deals with these issues on a regular basis. Here, for instance, is what M.J. very wisely has to say about self-promotion:
My take on Buzz is: Self promoting works for some authors and it fails for others. Some authors are good at it and some should never bother. Of course we all got into this because we wanted to write not promote. So you have to figure out what kind of writer you are, what you can do, what you can't, what you will, and what you won't.
I agree with that. In my own case, for instance, the one thing I absolutely will not do -- because I am no good at it, and because it takes up huge amounts of time -- is go round bookshops and try to persuade the managers to stock my stuff.

There is further discussion of the same issue on Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dangerous digits?

Google, it seems, has a Cunning Plan. It wants to digitise all the information in the world -- or at any rate such of it as is contained in books -- and make it universally available.

There is a department of Google known as Google Print, which is hard at work bringing about this state of affairs (which you are probably right in thinking will take some time). But a voice of caution has been raised.

In Publishing News (via, Nigel Newton, the CEO of Bloomsbury, is quoted as issuing a warning to the UK Publishers Association conference. He fears that mass digitisation might lead to people reading things for free, and copying books wholesale, and printing them off at home. And all like that.

Oh my God! Clutches heart and staggers backwards. How will humanity survive? Or, more specifically, how will folk like Nigel Newton survive?

Mark Le Fanu, head man of the UK Society of Authors, is also worried, and expresses doubts as to whether the standard publisher's contract actually gives publishers the right to allow the full text of their authors' books to be digitised.

Well, this one will run and run. Personally I agree with Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School. Lessig has said somewhere that, while it is true that everything written is governed by copyright, it is also true that 90% of copyright material (at least) has the same commercial value as a pitcher of warm spit. (Lessig didn't actually use the warm spit simile; I did. I borrowed it from an old-time American politician of decades ago. Lyndon Johnson once sought advice from the old-timer as to whether he should seek the Vice Presidency. 'Lyndon,' said the old-timer, 'the Vice Presidency ain't worth...' Mind you, Lyndon took the VP and ended up President. But I digress.)

Yes, if you are the publisher of a textbook on chemistry which is required reading in 1400 colleges and universities, you will wish to prevent piracy. And ditto if you publish Harry Potter, as Nigel Newton does. Some of us, however (Lessig for one), believe in posting free copies of our stuff on the internet, for several reasons.

First, it gets the information to the people who need it (if they bother to look), and why write something if you don't want readers? And second, if you've written something which proves really valuable to a particular reader, he is much more likely to go out and buy a copy of the book which he has already dipped into for free. It seems to me that, by and large, if you are likely to refer to a book again, or to re-read the entire thing, you need a printed copy rather than a digital file.

Michael Cader, author of the invaluable Publishers Lunch newsletter, also noticed the Newton speech, and found it distressingly negative and backward-looking. Here's an extract:

Of course we find it much more devastating that the music industry didn't learn from Napster--closed in 2001--that fans wanted digital music and had no legitimate, well-run source to turn to as music companies sat on the sidelines. Another company from outside their industry, Apple, had to prove the lesson again. As a result, sales of the device (iPod) are exponentially larger than revenues from the downloads, Apple has significant control over the marketplace, and traditional higher-priced "albums" are being forsaken for smaller slices--individual songs. The "music industry" has no choice but to follow, consolidating companies and laying off employees.

There are many prudent and even cautious ways of approaching Google Print and the unstoppable content explosion of the Internet, but sitting on the sidelines and declaring Pandora's Box will be the most devastating of all. We just keep hearing Tom Peters' line from the other week: "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

Meanwhile, over at Cornell University, Professor Tarleton Gillespie has been giving the students a clear, straightforward explanation of some of the issues. Big companies, he suggests, are trying to use technology, rather than the law, to safeguard their sources of income. In other words, digital rights management (DRM) is being used to control who may read, watch, or listen to what, and for what price. The DRM designers are 'welding the hood shut.'

This circumstance, plus a variety of similar hassles, have infuriated quite a high proportion music lovers. OK, so the music business has caught on, at last, to the fact that people want to be able to download stuff, but the companies concerned still have some way to go before they have happy customers. See yesterday's Sunday Times article for details.

Well, I used to mix with students a great deal, and one thing is for sure. If you present a technology student with a 'hood welded shut', or some other technological feature which he finds deeply unsatisfactory, then the first thing that cunning little feller is going to do is figure out a way to unzip the hood, get in there, and get what he wants. And then he will tell all his friends how to do it. So anyone in commerce who thinks that DRM is the answer to anything is in for a nasty shock.

As I say, you ain't heard the last of this one. I don't pretend to be able to predict the future -- ten year ago, who could have predicted what we have today? But I do think that Nigel Newton and those who think like him are being a trifle Luddite.

By the way, if you are tewwibly tewwibly concerned about the protection of your precious stuff from those who would copy it and pass it on, just remember that publishers have a rough rule of thumb. Some manuscripts are submitted to them with a notice on the front cover which says: COPYRIGHT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MS MUST NOT BE XEROXED. And so forth.

The publishers' rule of thumb is this: the bigger and more prominent the warning about copyright, the bigger the heap of crap the ms is likely to be.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Nit-pickers of the world, unite

If you are ever lucky enough to get a contract for a book, and if you are lucky enough to have said contract offered by a commissioning editor who still cares enough (and there are fewer of them these days), your book will be read by a third person, known as a copy editor -- sometimes called a line editor.

The copy editor's job is to go through your book and, as a minimum, correct the spelling and make sure that your sentences are not completely incomprehensible and illiterate. A really good copy editor is a great prize. A bad one is an unbelievable pain in the arse.

A good copy editor will spot everything that is questionable or inconsistent, and will ask you, politely, if this is what you really mean, and perhaps it might be better to rephrase this sentence, and is the title of that song really 'I want to hold your hand', or is it 'I wanna hold your hand'? Or should it even be 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'? And should it be in italics, rather than inverted commas?

A good copy editor (like an old-time typesetter) will know that benefitted is wrong and that benefited is right; what is more, she will know why -- what the rule is, and what the exceptions to the rule are.

Since you ask, the rule about benefited and such, broadly speaking, is that words of more than one syllable, which end with one consonant preceded by one vowel, double the final consonant on adding suffixes such as -ed, or -ing, but only if the last syllable of the word is stressed. Hence occur becomes occurred, begin becomes beginning, and so forth, because the emphasis falls on the second syllable. Benefit, on the other hand, has the emphasis on the first syllable -- hence benefited, not benefitted.

All perfectly simple really, isn't it? A fuller explanation is given in Fowler's Modern English Usage; I am using the third edition.

Mind you, since this is the English language that we are talking about, there are exceptions to the rule stated above, notably words ending in w, x, or y. (Guffaw becomes guffawed.) Also words ending in -l generally double the last consonant whether stressed on the last syllable or not. (Libel and libelled; annul and annulled.)

And, what's more, the Americans screw up all these rules by spelling everything differently anyway. I don't know, you give people a perfectly sensible language, and what do they do? Go their own sweet way, as per usual.

Back to copy-editing. As an example of how a copy editor's mind works, I once had a lady ring me up and point out that I had spelt the word artist (referring to a performer) in two different ways. Sometimes it was artist, and sometimes it was artiste. Did I really intend that?

As it happened, I did really intend it. I used the word artist when writing as the author/narrator. The word artiste was used, I said, only in dialogue, and only by one person, who was a bit of a poseur. But I was grateful to the copy editor for reading the book sufficiently alertly to have noticed.

A bad copy editor will cause you endless grief. Some of them seem to have delusions of grandeur. There was, for instance, the case of Joan Aiken, now deceased. Shortly before her death, Joan wrote an account in The Author (journal of the UK Society of Authors), in which she described how she had been treated by (as it happens) an American copy editor.

Background: Joan had written books for thirty years; she has 510 entries on Amazon. Such a writer, you might think, ought to be assumed to know what she is doing. But no. This copy editor had gone through the whole of Joan's last book and had 'improved' it.

Joan had written: 'Hark at the wind,' shivered George.

The copy editor substituted: 'Listen to the wind,' said George with a shiver.

And so on. On every goddam page. Hellfire, I wouldn't have done that to the ten-year-old boys I used to teach.

Another case known to me concerns a book (not his first) written by a 70-year-old businessman, about the management of companies. The copy editor (British, and evidently feminist) had gone through his text and made it politically correct. Where the author had put Chairman, the copy editor wanted Chairperson.

The author, not surprisingly, blew a gasket. He pointed out, with gritted teeth, that there is not a single company quoted on the UK Stock Exchange which has a 'Chairperson'. They all have Chairmen, thank you very much. (Mrs GOB, by the way, is Chairman of the local flower club, the membership of which is 100% female, and there is no move afoot to change the name of her office.)

Fortunately, tales of disastrous dealings with copy editors are not common. For the most part, the copy editors do a magnificent job, for next to no money, and precious little thanks. And what a hell of a job it is. I've done some, and I know. It's hard grind, and badly paid.

So if and when you get your book under way, hope that you will be given the privilege of being copy-edited, and, even though you may not wish to adopt the suggested changes, be glad that someone read the book, probably more carefully than anyone else will, and took the trouble to check things with you.

All of the above is prompted by an article on the Book Standard in which Adam Langer pays tribute to these oft-forgotten heroes (actually more often heroines), and interviews a few of them about their working practices. Well worth reading.

Another excellent web site which any serious writer ought to look at now and again is Bill Walsh's The Slot. Bill is the Copy Desk Chief, Business Desk, at the Washington Post, and therefore knows a fair bit about editing copy. His site is admirably self-explanatory, and gives details of his book, Lapsing into a Comma.

By the way, I normally use Oxford reference books when doubtful about how to spell or punctuate. And Oxford suggests the we should write copy editor (noun, two words) and copy-edit (verb, hyphenated). Adam Langer's article uses neither space nor hyphen, but prints copyeditor and copyedited. Bill Walsh follows Oxford (which may be the same, for all I know, as Chicago, or wherever). You are free, I guess, to take your pick in relation to these and similar options. But whichever you choose, have a good reason for doing so; and be consistent.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Thoughtful, knowledgeable, and smart

From time to time in this blog, I have made certain (well-founded) criticisms of publishers, criticisms of so sweeping a nature that you may have concluded that I regard all of them as fools, villains, or worse.

In fact the situation is not as bad as that. It is perfectly true that the book business as a whole is relatively unprofitable, in commercial terms, and is staffed by people who for the most part are untrained and badly paid. (For further details see the fourth extract from my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.) However, there are individuals working in the book business who are knowledgeable, thoughtful, and smart. When I come across any written work by such people, I try to draw it to your attention.

Hence this suggestion that you should take a look at two speeches by Mike Shatzkin, of the Idea Logical Company. Both speeches were made, I understand, at a book industry conference in Canada last week. The speeches were addressed, it seems, to an audience of publishers rather than writers, but they contain a substantial amount of information and comment which is more than relevant to both groups. (Original links from Publishers Lunch.)

In the first speech, Shatzkin does a thorough survey of how the book business has changed over the last ten years, and where it stands today. Towards the end he makes fourteen specific suggestions for improvements that publishers can make to their existing practice.

The speech is far too long and detailed for me to attempt to summarise here. Instead, I will merely mention one paragraph. Here is what Shatzkin has to say about remaindering -- and if you're new to the business, 'remaindering' is the practice of selling off the last few hundred copies of a print run at a far cheaper price than the bulk of the run, just to get the last few copies out of the warehouse and make room for something else.
...Remaindering is gasoline on the fire of the used book market. Although retailers love remainders, I think everybody really suffers because they exist. Not only do they enable customers to buy substitutes for full-priced books that neither the publisher nor the author make a profit on, they devalue the retail prices publishers establish. The one case where a company would almost certainly help itself by ceasing remainders is with a brand name, repeat author. Repeat customers learn pretty quickly if they can wait a few months and save more than half the price on a book. Increases over the last book by successful authors are going to get harder and harder to achieve anyhow; remainders just add another obstacle.
This strikes me as particularly relevant in relation to the post that I put up on Monday about the Times's Inspiring Reads offer. Books at 99p and all that. My son, no less, has posted a comment to the piece, in which he points out that the first book on offer is not actually old stock at all; it appears to be a version specially printed for the offer.

Well, in that case the sales of the offer edition will be covered under the small print of the author's contract dealing with 'special deals' or some terminology of that sort. In which case the author will normally get 10% of what the publisher gets. But how much do you suppose the publisher is getting, on a per copy basis, if the book is to be sold at 99p? You can do the arithmetic any number of ways, but at the end of the day there seems to be precious little money in it for anyone.

Of course there is an argument that customers of WHS who don't normally read the Times might be tempted to start doing so by seeing that this offer is available. And existing Times readers might be tempted to go into WHS to get the special offer, and then buy other things when they get there. And, finally, there is the argument that readers, having read one book by an author at the wonderful bargain price of 99p, might be tempted to buy other books by that author at a more normal price. But to my mind it is all a dangerous strategy; and I agree with Shatzkin that it is not a smart move to encourage readers to think that they will be able to buy books dirt cheap if they are prepared to wait.

All in all, Shatzkin's first speech is, I would suggest, essential reading for anyone who works in publishing, and it is particularly important for writers. Anyone who has written a book, or is thinking of doing so, would be well advised to read this piece in some detail.

Shatzkin's second speech is more technical, and is aimed very firmly at the top level of financial management of publishing companies. There are a number of technical terms which are used without explanation, and the average reader may find it tough going. However, once again, my advice would to be give it a careful look, because there is much there which will improve your understanding of how publishers think, and how, perhaps, they would do well to think.

Writers, particularly in fiction, tend to slave away for a year or more without any advance payment. And they also tend to get very upset when their baby is rejected. Even those who put in a non-fiction proposal, and have it turned down, can feel seriously aggrieved. It is therefore not at all a bad idea to gain some understanding of the kind of financial thinking which may govern the publisher's decision. It is, after all, far from unknown for an editor to say that she really loved the book, but just doesn't believe that she can sell it. Reading Shatzkin will help you to understand why.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Parental guidance

The Scrivener's Error blog has a piece on the rating of films (PG and so forth) which is worth a look if you are interested in the question of censorship. It is an old question -- why are we so terrified of sex, and yet will tolerate high levels of graphic violence in our movies? Yet it remains one of concern to parents.

And while you're peeking at Scrivener's Error, you might wish to go back to 4 August 2004 and read what he has to say about the 'boosterism of self-publishing' -- i.e. that list of famous writers who self-published at least some of their books. This list crops up, in one plagiarised form or another, on every web site which wants to persuade you to self-publish your book, using, of course, the facilities provided, for a fee, by the company which set up the web site. As C.E. Petit points out, the list is, to put it politely, misleading.


A couple of correspondents (so far) have pointed out, in relation to the sagas business, that Beowulf was not influenced by the Norse sagas, since it was, apparently, written 300 years earlier. Which is a fairly convincing argument. Also that Sir Gawain similarly predates the sagas and is 'an alliterative Arthurian romance'.

Well, there you go, see. I should have known better than to believe what I read on the internet. But how reassuring to learn that the readers of the GOB are such a literate and well informed group.

More about sagas

Last week I mentioned a new prize for saga writers, and it occurred to me, a bit belatedly, that not everyone might know what the saga business is all about.

The first sagas were the Norse sagas from Iceland and Scandinavia. These were written in Old Norse, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The word saga probably meant 'what is told', and the Norse sagas were tales of the exploits of kings, families, and heroes on quests of one sort or another. I ought to know more about them than that, because I was supposed to study them in my last year at school but somehow never got around to it.

Over the centuries, these original Norse tales inspired a good many imitators. These include such classics as Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, the latter of which I did once read. (Later note: this ain't true, scholars have told me. Both were written before the sagas. I misread the source.) And, of course, they lie behind much of Tolkien, particularly The Lord of the Rings. (This is true; trust me.)

Once we get into the twentieth century, the term saga was chiefly popularised by John Galsworthy, who wrote The Forsyte Saga. As published in 1922, this is a series of three novels plus two 'interludes' or shorter pieces. It tells the story of three generations of the Forsytes, a rich middle-class family living in England. Thus the saga, in modern publishing terms, is widely thought of as a family history; or, at the very least, the life story of one individual. It is not just a brief episode from anyone's life, and it is usually long in wordage as well as in the period of time covered.

Forsyte's work was not only popular at the time of its publication, but it has twice been serialised on UK television, 35 years apart; the first occasion, 1967, caused rather more of a stir than the second, in 2002.

Galsworthy's story material, in essence, is not much distinguishable from such soap operas as the television series Dynasty. However, until I looked him up for this post, I had entirely forgotten that in 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, yes, you see there was a time when the Nobel Prize, like the Pulitzer, was awarded to books that ordinary people could read with some pleasure, whereas today it is reserved for Bolivian poets and Burmese playwrights whom no one outside the awarding committee has ever heard of.

In modern publishing, at any rate in the UK, the term saga is generally used to describe a type of fiction aimed principally at women. The usual pattern is a multi-generational story covering the experiences of one family, the history concentrating very largely on the experiences of the women.

The term saga also crops up, occasionally, in science fiction, e.g. in relation to E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensmen series, or Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels. But such usage is more confined to the fans, I suspect, than to the publishers.

Which brings me to another interesting aspect of the saga. I have the feeling that the saga, as written and read in England, is not a highly exportable genre. True, a few writers, such as Rosamund Pilcher, have enjoyed substantial success in the USA, but Josephine Cox, who is an enormous seller in the UK, hardly gets any exposure in the US at all.

Demand for the saga, from UK publishers, seems to be as strong as ever. Kate Allan, author of A Notorious Deception, tells me that she has recently been asked by both a literary agent and a publisher to produce a saga for them. So maybe, if you want to get a foot in the door, this is the way to go.

If you're a man, you can always write under a female pen-name. Two of the most successful UK authors in this area, Jessica Stirling and Emma Blair, are both blokes -- Hugh C. Rae and Ian Blair respectively. Both of them Scotsmen, by the way. Must be something to do with the kilt. (The article by Ian Blair is well worth a look.)

And, er, at the risk of immodesty, let me not forget that I wrote a saga myself: Topp Family Secrets, written under the name Anne Moore. I can't say that it was a bestseller, but it was bought by quite a few public libraries, and the public lending right payments show that it is being read. Strictly speaking, this is only volume one of what was intended to be a three-part story. However, since time is passing so quickly, it now seems unlikely that I will ever write parts two and three. Pity, because I really enjoyed doing it, even though it was damned hard work keeping track of several main characters over a long period of time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Guardian goodies

For some reason which I do not entirely understand, the UK newspaper The Guardian seems to be more interested in books than many of its peers. From time to time they produce some really quite useful articles. Here are a couple, drawn to my attention by

First, Robert McCrum on the modern novel. Now that there are so many people writing novels, he asks, why aren't the damn things getting any better?

McCrum is writing, it seems, largely from the point of view of someone who is interested in the literary novel, rather than any more obviously commercial genre, but he reckons that in any given year there are perhaps 50 or 100 novels published in the English-speaking world which are any good. The rest are -- ahem -- less than inspiring.

I don't altogether agree with this, for a variety of reasons. First, I think the standard of fiction can reasonably be said to be rising. Modern novels are, I think, often more professional and competent than those produced fifty years ago -- see my comments on the Dan Synge article, below. And if you count the good stuff being written in science fiction and crime -- two areas that I happen to know something about -- then there are comfortably more than 100 novels a year that I would want to read. Let's put it that way. And that's without even counting books in genres that I don't often venture into, such as romance.

However, McCrum is right, I think, to criticise the very inbred and incestuous nature of much of modern fiction, particularly on the literary side. There are far too many people about who think that you can plunge straight from studying Eng. Lit. at university into a career as a novelist without actually doing any living of a life in between. One of my recent correspondents suggested that she would need to be about fifty years old before she could tackle a certain kind of novel, and I think she's right.

Anyone who is thinking of writing a novel, or is a heavy reader of them, should see what McCrum has to say.

The second Guardian article is by Dan Synge, and it concerns the collecting of old paperbacks -- generally known in their day as pulp fiction.

The production of pulp fiction in paperback form in the UK, some fifty years ago, is the subject of a fascinating book by Steve Holland entitled The Mushroom Jungle. I discussed it at some length in my posts of 28 October and 29 October last year, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it so say, with reference to Robert McCrum's article discussed above, that some of the books which were then published in England were strong contenders for the prize of worst book ever written.

Some of the people who collect those books do so not just for the covers but for the painful pleasure of reading a book which is irredeemably awful in every respect. The people who wrote them worked at great speed, hammering away at a typewriter for eight or ten hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes they didn't even read through what they had written. They worked to very tight length limits, and so when they found themselves with a story to finish in one and a half pages, they resorted to amazing short cuts to wrap the story up.

So you see what I mean when I say that the standard of fiction can, in some respects, be said to have risen over the last fifty years.

Finally, one collector draws attention to another of the virtues of the fifty-year-old material. 'Back in the old days,' he says, 'these books were 120 pages and they had a beginning, middle and end. That was it. Who needs 700 pages of crap you can't even fit in a coat pocket?'


Monday, April 18, 2005

Weekend news

Here are a few bits and pieces that accumulated over the weekend.


One commenter on my posts about prizes, last week, asks whether anyone knows of a long-term bestselling author who first came to public attention through a contest.

Well, one who did was the English crime writer Peter Lovesey. Peter is not perhaps a household name, but he has had a long and successful career as a professional writer.

In 1969 Peter won a competition for a crime novel, organised by Macmillan, with a first prize of £1,000, which was more than his annual salary at the time. He won the prize, and the book, Wobble to Death, became the first in his long list of subsequent publications. He tells the story in his interview with Anne Perry.

Lust and Truth

The latest edition of the Cambridge University alumni magazine includes a Don's Diary column from Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy. One of his recent books was entitled Lust -- part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins (and it appears to have been published, I regret to report, by Oxford).

This book seems to have generated rather more popular interest than is generally accorded to a book on philosophy. When interviewed on Irish radio, the interviewer said, 'So, what you're saying to all our listeners is, if you're masturbating, that's all right?'

To which the Prof replied, 'Provided you're not driving.'

Sadly, the Prof found himself stumped for a reply when asked, 'Where do you stand on bestiality?' Surely the appropriate answer is 'To the rear of the animal.' Though I was once told by a farmer that, in the case of young calves, you can stand in front. However, you do have to make sure that the calf is not old enough to have grown any teeth. Otherwise I cannot answer for the consequences.

By the way, Simon Blackburn's next book is entitled Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, but he says that he does not expect it to attract the same attention as Lust.

I don't see why not. After all, everyone is interested in the truth, aren't they? Apart from politicians, of course. And advertisers. And criminals. And... well, yes, come to think of it, probably very small sales indeed.

Inspiring reads

The Times is running another of its periodic book promotions, this time called Inspiring Reads. Details were in a little pamphlet which fell out of the newspaper on Saturday and can be found online.

This seems to be a variation on the cunning plan which was launched last year, and which I wrote about on 7 June. The promotion appears, superficially, to be a service to the reader, who is (a) given helpful suggestions about good books to read, and (b) offered the opportunity to buy them at the bargain price of 99p each in WH Smith's.

On closer examination, one realises that most, if not all, of the books are published by HarperCollins, or one of its subsidiaries. (I didn't check every one, but five chosen at random are by HC, who also advertise at the back of the pamphlet. This was also true last year.) And HarperCollins is, of course, part of the Murdoch empire, as is The Times.

The offer is also limited to those who buy a copy of The Times or one of its sister papers, and you can only buy the one book that is designated for that week.

So, what we actually have here is a device to shift some stagnant paperback stock that HC happen to have lying around the warehouse. The books listed were well received in their day, but are now, I suspect, right at the tail-end of the sales graph. The scheme is also a means of selling a few more newspapers, plus a device to lure customers into WHS on a slow day of the week -- a marketing device which WHS have undoubtedly paid for, and HC will have had to pay for too, in one way or another. The whole being dressed up as a worthy contribution to culcha.

I am not impressed. And I find myself thinking the same thought that I raised last year. What about the poor bloody authors of these books? 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 their contract, and at best the author's income is likely to be 10% of the money received by the publisher. Let's be generous, and say that the publisher is able to sell these 99p retail books to WHS at 50p each, wholesale. So the author might get 10% of 50p = 5p a copy. At worst, these cut-price sales might be dealt with under the 'remainders and disposal of surplus stock' clause of the author's contract. In which case, since the stock is probably being disposed of at a figure below the cost of production, no royalty at all will be payable.

Everyone, in short, benefits from this enterprise except the people who actually write the books.

Why does this scenario feel so familiar?

More bullshit

The Sunday Times magazine section entitled Culture is often a mixed bag, containing lots of publicity puffs for new films et cetera, plus, occasionally, some good stuff, particularly on books. Yesterday's issue, for example, contained a long review of Harry G. Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit (which I referred to last week). Sadly, the review article doesn't seem to be available online, but it confirms that the essay will be well worth reading. And it's only 47 pages, so it can't take long.

One interesting little comment in the review is the statement that the philosopher Wittgenstein said that a verse of Longfellow's could serve as his motto: 'In the elder days of art/Builders wrought with greatest care/Each minute and unseen part,/For the Gods are everywhere.'

This echoes Seneca's story, which I quoted on 1 April, about a craftsman who was asked why he took so much trouble over something that would never reach more than a very few people. ‘A few is enough for me,’ said the craftsman. ‘So is one; so is none.’

Both verse and story are, I feel relevant to bloggers and to those who are finding publication difficult to achieve.

By the way, Bryan Appleyard's review of On Bullshit is not the only bit of the weekend papers that I can't find online. Saturday's Financial Times includes a magazine section which often carries reviews by (Professor) John Sutherland, and I might have referred to his latest review article if I'd been able to link to it.

Of course, failure to find these things may just be down to my incompetence. But I suspect it may be related to the fact that both Appleyard and Sutherland have declined to sign over their digital rights, preferring to give their work limited exposure at this time, and publish a collection of pieces in book form later. If so, it is interesting that some writers can insist on that. Time was when newspapers would not only want digital rights but the entire copyright of the piece as well.

Never had it so good

Another Sunday Times review, which is available online, is Godfrey Smith's take on Never Had It So Good, which is a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (i.e. 1956 to 1963, or thereabouts). The author of this history is Dominic Sandbrook.

Sandbrook's thesis, crudely stated, is that we have a grossly distorted view of what was actually happening in England in the 1950s and '60s. Looking back, we tend to see the sensational headlines (Profumo, Lady Chatterley, the Rolling Stones drug busts), and to ignore the fact that many things really did not change all that much. We tend to adopt what E.P. Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity.'

This thesis is, I believe, wholly correct. What is more, the phenomenon is echoed in the history of literature. With knobs on. As I indicated in my two posts on the history of the short story, those who write the official accounts of what happened in literature, drama, and the arts, tend to be academics with a vested interest in emphasising the obscure, the difficult to understand, the highbrow, and the esoteric. The tastes of what might be termed 'ordinary people' are wholly ignored.

For details, see my post of 17 March, in which I compare the official view of developments in the theatre and the short story with what was actually happening in public taste.


Finally, the ST also has a review of a book by Dave Thompson entitled Cream: the World's First Supergroup. The book itself doesn't sound to be all that hot, but it contains the information that next month the original trio of talents are to play their first concerts together for 26 years. Now that really is pretty staggering.

Thompson says that Cream sounded as hairy as they looked, preferring 'unstructured jams' to the neatly groomed set-lists of other groups. Actually I think it was a bit more complicated than that. Jack Bruce had a grounding in classical music, and before getting into Cream (largely for the money) he and Ginger Baker had been playing free jazz in Soho. I saw a television interview with Jack recently in which he said that Cream was really playing free jazz, and that he and Ginger saw Eric Clapton as the Ornette Coleman of the group. They just didn't tell Eric that he was Ornette Coleman.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Get another prize here

Yesterday's news of a wonderful prize from Random House UK and ASDA is followed in no time at all by news of another staggering offer. But this one is for Americans only, it would appear.

A new reality TV show has been launched. This one is called Book Millionaire, and it is currently inviting people to audition. Entries are invited from those who want to become published authors or those who are published and want to achieve best selling status. Eight of the applicants ('people with dreams of seeing their book ideas become published and being the next author launched to best selling and celebrity status') will meet Book Millionaire’s Publishing Committee during July 2005 to start the filming of Book Millionaire Reality TV Show. The show itself will be aired nationally (in the US) in the Fall of 2005.

See, here again you have to wonder why writers complain so much. To enter for this one you may meet any one of the following criteria:

• You don't need to have written your book or manuscript but you have an idea you feel would be a good book, or...
• You may have been told by people that you should write a book, or...
• You have a desire to become published and to live the incredible lifestyle of a rich, famous author, or...
• You may have started writing your book, but it is not completed yet, or...
• You may have your book written. It is completed but not published, or...
• You may have published your book, but it has not sold like you wanted.

Now, is that democratic and a level playing field, or what? I really like that stuff about not needing to have written anything but just want to live the incredible life style of a rich, famous author.

By the way, the phrase Book Millionaire seems to have been registered as a trade mark. So every time I use the term in future I am going to have to put a little TM mark in the top right-hand corner, so to speak. One the other hand, I may never mention the show again. That will probably be easier.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

On bullshit

USA Today (which I reached via carries a report that Professor Harry G. Frankfurt -- a philosopher at Princeton -- has a bestseller on his hands with a mere 47-page essay (published in book form) entitled On Bullshit.

Well, this looks like fun. And given that USA Today cannot even bring itself to print the proper title, but refers to the book throughout as On Bull--, it seems that an essay on the subject is well overdue.

Get your prize here

Random House UK and ASDA (a UK supermarket) have announced a prize for saga writers. What they are looking for is 'a writer who combines superb storytelling, unforgettable characters and a vivid sense of time and place.'

All you have to do is submit 4000 words, or roughly 2 chapters, along with a synopsis for the rest of the book and ideas for other novels. The closing date is December 2005 and submissions will be judged by a panel including the editorial team at RH's Arrow imprint, author Rosie Harris, and Toby Bourne of ASDA (he stacks shelves in the Leighton Buzzard branch). The winner will be announced in January 2006 and the book will then be published in 2007 by Arrow; it will be available in ASDA stores nationwide. ASDA have promised to support the book with major space in-store and a feature in ASDA magazine. (God, there's fame for you.)

So, all you have to do is plan a series of books, plot one in detail, write the first couple of chapters, and send it in. Next weekend should do it, with time out to go to the pub and the church as well. For this competition you don't even have to pay an entry fee (well the press release doesn't mention one, anyway) and the last time a major competition for wannabe novelists was held there were only 46,000 entries.

Who says writers have a tough time? There are opportunities all over the place if you look for them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rupert Thomson: The Insult

I cannot now remember when and where I first heard about Rupert Thomson's 1996 novel The Insult, but while I was reading it I noticed that Maud Newton is a big fan, so it was probably from her. Anyway, I have now read said book, and a strange one it is too.

For the first 25o pages of this book, the story is narrated in the first person by Martin Blom. He begins by telling us how, while visiting the supermarket one Thursday evening, he is hit in the head by a bullet. As a result he is blinded, and he is told by a surgeon that the injury is irreversible; he is blind for life.

So far so orthodox, perhaps. But then something odd happens. Martin Blom discovers that his vision has returned. He can see. But there is one peculiarity about his power of sight. He can only see at night -- in the dark.

And we proceed from there, following Blom as he investigates this and that -- mostly a young woman who has disappeared.

When part two of the book begins, on page 261, the story continues in the first person. But we suddenly discover that we have a new narrator. And we come close to having an entirely separate novel, though we gradually discover that the characters and stories overlap. And part two tells us a very dark story indeed; powerful, though.

The dust jacket copy warns us that Rupert Thomson is one of the strangest voices in contemporary fiction. And they ain't kidding. This book is seriously weird. I mean like it is way the hell over there, man.

For a start, I wonder where we are located. The characters all have foreign names: Blom, Visser, Munck, and so forth: so we are hardly in England. And the city where much of the action takes place, where is that? It has numbered districts, a bit like Paris. The country is said to have a President, and it features mountains, but it is never identified for us. Perhaps it exists in a parallel universe, which is the true location of all fiction.

Overall, this book generates a curiously hypnotic grip on the reader. I was going to say that it is not the type of book that I would normally have much time for, because it is published by Bloomsbury, and with the exception of ole Harry their stuff is usually a bit highbrow for me. But when I come to think about it, I'm damned if I know what type of book this is. Is it literary, scifi, fantasy, pyschothriller, or what? Pass. But it held my attention throughout.

Thomson, it seems, has a new book just out: Divided Kingdoms. You can read an interview with him in the Independent online. He has also written books prior to The Insult. However, having read one I can't say that I am in any hurry to read another. I found his work to be curiously unsettling. It made me nervous.

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith

It's a bit late to mention it, for those of you who live in the UK, but the BBC has just finished broadcasting a three-part adaptation of Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith.

Fingersmith is set in the nineteenth-century, which seems to be Waters's favourite era, and the plot concerns, as usual with Victorian novels, who gets the money. Also as usual, at any rate with Waters, there is a lesbian love story involved.

The TV drama was, I thought, extremely well done. And for the time being, at least, you can see the BBC's page on it here. The acting, as is almost invariably the case in British drama, was first class, and those of you who live in foreign parts might care to look out for for this serial, because it will no doubt be sold overseas in due course.

The plot is fiendish complicated, and the TV adaptor, Peter Ransley, did a good job of making it all reasonably clear. Of course, as one reviewer said, you do have to concentrate; and it helps, no doubt, if you catch every word of the dialogue, which my clapped-out ears do not.

The novel itself I read over a year ago, and enjoyed it, though I found it rather long. (As I have said before, and will doubtless have cause to say again, the majority of books are too long these days. It must be something they put in the water.)

Should you wish to sample the book, there is a sizeable chunk of it provided by courtesy of the Guardian. Having read the extract myself, this morning, it seems to me to be quite beautiful and sensitive writing (and those are not descriptive terms that I use very often), by someone who knows exactly what she is doing. I might even be tempted to read the book again. And I don't do that often, either.

Should you seek to know more, the best place to start is Sarah's publisher's page on her.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Recycling characters from the past

The Book Babes have an article about the use of fictional characters in modern novels, claiming that the US spring lists are 'larded with novels that appropriate famous fictional characters, not to mention a few from real life.'

Well now, let's differentiate between the two variations on the theme. Using characters from real life in a novel is one thing; using fictional characters is quite another. But in either case, caution, I would suggest, is strongly advised.

First, using real-life characters. I have done this myself, quite a bit. For example, I have written two crime novels cum thrillers under the pen-name Patrick Read.

In The Suppression of Vice, the main character is the real-life nineteenth-century poet, Algernon Swinburne. Once upon a time Swinburne was a household name, but he isn't any longer because, by and large, people don't read poetry. Many of the other characters in Vice are, or were, also real people.

In Beautiful Lady, the principal characters are my own creations, but many of the people that my heroine deals with along the way were famous in their day: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Joe Kennedy being the chief of them.

(By the way, should you wish to buy either of these books, they are available from as well as

There are, I would suggest a number of problems connected with the use of real-life characters in a novel. In the first place, one has to be aware that real people who are still alive may not like what you say about them and may, conceivably, sue. Suing for libel is much easier in the UK than in the USA, but either way you would not want it to happen.

Dead people, on the other hand, cannot sue. And neither (as I understand it) can anyone sue on their behalf, though you have to be careful that you do not imply that villainy is passed on from father to son.

There is, however, a further problem which is best described as a problem of conscience. The dead may not be able to harass you with writs, but are you entitled to portray them as double-dyed villains, despite the fact that they can't hire a lawyer? I suggest not.

In Beautiful Lady I was painfully aware of this problem, because the real-life characters whom I have mentioned above were far from saints. Fortunately I had already planned the book as a story within a story. The novel which you eventually read is a novel which is, allegedly, written by one of the fictional characters, and the internal novelist, so to speak, justifies his approach as follows.

'Isn't it a bit unethical,' one character asks the internal novelist, 'to malign those who aren't here to defend themselves?'

The internal novelist's response is as follows: 'Malign? You think I malign them? Jesus Christ, George, you seem to have lost whatever marbles you ever had.' And he goes on to suggest that the real-life characters were, in fact, much blacker than he paints them.

In other words, my own considered practice was never to portray my real-life characters as doing anything which was any more immoral or illegal than the acts which history tells us they were certainly guilty of. So, if you should ever read Beautiful Lady, and feel that I am being, perhaps, a little harsh on some of these people, just remember that they were all far bigger sinners and crooks than I say they were. And if you think I was rude, you should see what some other writers -- both historians and novelists -- have said about them.

As for the use of fictional characters from the past in novels written in the present day -- well, the Book Babes would have us believe that this is a comparatively new trend, though they date its origins to 1966.

New or not, it does seem to have become a popular practice in the past few years, and here again I have done a bit of it myself. My novel Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, written under the pen-name Anne Moore, is (unsurprisingly) a continuation of the life story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who first appeared in Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol. And I also wrote a stage play, Hook in Bath, which features the lovely Captain Hook from Peter Pan.

Here again, I strongly advise caution before you rush ahead and write a novel all about your favourite fictional character. The complicating factor is, of course, copyright.

I say 'of course', but in my experience many writers have only the vaguest grasp of the principles of copyright, and even less grasp of the complexities of copyright law. In England, at least, the law is far from simple.

The plain fact is that, if you want to make use of a fictional character, you had better make damn sure that the book(s) in which that character appears are out of copyright. It's no good saying airily, Oh that book was published in the nineteenth century -- it's bound to be out of copyright. Tain't that simple. Would that it were.

This is not the place to touch on all the complexities. Suffice it to say that copyright in relation to Algernon Swinburne, for example, a man whom I have already mentioned, is far from straightforward. First you have to decide/discover whether a particular poem by Algernon is in or out of copyright. And that will depend (I speak from memory rather than from an open law book) on whether the poem has ever been published, and if so when.

If you discover that a poem (or whatever) is in copyright, then you have to find out who owns the copyright. In my experience, letters of enquiry about copyright, which are sent to publishers or agents, can take up to six months, and several promptings, to elicit a reply. And, to continue using Swinburne as an example, it can turn out that no one knows the answer to your query.

At one point, about 10 years ago, when I was trying to clarify a point in relation to the Swinburne copyrights, I discovered that the publishing firm which had for years claimed ownership of the copyright, and had collected royalties on that basis, had suddenly developed doubts about the matter, based on an interpretation of the 1911 copyright act. So the situation was as clear as mud.

As it so happens, I was able, by the simple expedient of making two phone calls, to shed some light on the matter myself. But to set out the situation on paper occupied several pages.

It is also worth making the point, I think, that there is little purpose in using a fictional character unless that character is famous. And if the character is famous, and is in copyright, the copyright owners are going to want to charge you one hell of a lot of money for letting you proceed.

Some years ago I wrote a couple of TV scripts for Sheldon Reynolds, who then owned, effectively, the Conan Doyle copyright, and thus controlled the use of the character Sherlock Holmes. Reynolds had made a lot of many from licensing the use of Holmes, and at that time, 1979, the great detective was about to go out of copyright. Fortunately (for Reynolds) the UK and European laws were changed, extending the period of copyright. If you want to read all about the dog-fight for control of the Sherlock Holmes cash flow, you can find an account of it here.

The point is, of course, that some of these classic copyrights are worth not just small fortunes, but large ones. If you are the grandson, or whatever, of a famous writer from the first half of the twentieth century, you could be benefiting from tens of thousands of pounds/dollars worth of income every year. This is particularly true of those authors whose works are compulsory reading on US college Eng. Lit. courses. In some cases it's hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars. Per year.

People who have got used to that sort of moolah rolling in, without having to lift a finger for it, are reluctant to give it up. (See, for instance, the shenanigans over public readings from the work of James Joyce.) So they employ some high-powered fancy-pants lawyers to dream up ways and means of keeping the copyright alive.

This practice is particularly popular among the big-time companies which own big names. If you want an example, read about how the Disney company spent a lot of money on 'campaign contributions' and succeeded in extending the life of their money-spinner, the lovable Mickey Mouse.

Such, it seems, are the procedures through which fair numbers of our fellow citizens earn themselves a crust.

Wodehouse lives

My short piece about P.G. Wodehouse attracted more comment than any other single post on the GOB has ever done. So quite obviously the great man is still much admired, republished, and read. Though he is not, it would appear, much studied in universities. Well thank God for that, anyway.

One commenter points us towards what is apparently a Wodehouse-inspired spoof: Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (available from Amazon, either or com). The com site has more info than the uk, and the book certainly looks as if it might be fun.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Big boys beat you up (via has an article about the power of the big corporations, and what creative people can do about it. One answer, it seems (but not the only one), is to do your own thing. Which is precisely what I said in my recent essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

The mediachannel article deserves to be read in full, at the very least because it contains some extremely interesting data. Here are some samples, drawn from the US market:
Just six firms dominate US book publishing. Two huge national retail chains sell 80% of books. Sales from independent booksellers dropped from 42% in 1992 to just 20% in 1998. Publishers give big advances to authors with a built-in audience, like Bill Clinton. Little is left for mid-list authors and new writers. If they are 'lucky' enough to be signed, most authors receive just 7-15% of royalties. Less than 1% of writers make more than $50k a year, just 6% of writers make a living as authors.
The position is not much different anywhere else in the world.

The article also reveals that more than 10 million creations have been distributed using Creative Commons licenses. For example, the online record label Magnatune has 326 albums by 174 artists -- all using Creative Commons licenses. Artists can now directly build a royalty base and a loyalty base for future projects, allowing them to create their own cottage media industry without 'selling out' to corporate conglomerates. Director Robert Greenwald sold over 100,000 copies of the DVD of the movie Outfoxed through House Parties organised by (More on this way of proceeding can be found here.)

Another comment from mediachannel is that writers, in particular, are thoroughly displeased with the way the big corporations treat them. Here is what Pat Holt has to say:
Everywhere you look, authors have changed their approach. They don't depend on agents or editors any longer .... Today's savvy authors hire their own manuscript consultants and their own publicists. ....The reason is that the industry treats them like garbage - still patronizes them, condescends to them, dismisses them, doesn't read them, sends them out on exhausting tours if they're lucky, and dismisses them if the numbers don't work.
Hmm. Once again, it is interesting to note that there are people out there who are much grumpier than I am.

Poetry month

Andrew O'Hara kindly drew my attention to an article about poetry which may be of interest.

Poetry is very definitely not my thing, but I do hear rumblings from time to time that all is not well in that arena. (Dan Schneider, for example, has been scathing about it.)

Anyway, in his article 'Against Poetry Month as Such', Charles Bernstein has a few things to say about how people want poetry to be nice and polite and easy to read; whereas, the chief virtue of poetry, in Charles's eyes, is that the good stuff ain't easy and nice and polite.

The article also has something to say about the deadly effects of commercial sponsorship. My own view is that such sponsorship is indeed counter-productive (usually), and state subsidy is even worse.

Bedtime reading

Mrs GOB has been reading Life of Pi (without any prompting from me, I may add), but has commented (rather than complained) that it is much too exciting to be read last thing at night, in bed. She finds that she lies awake for half the night, worrying about that poor tiger.

The consequence is that she has had to restrict Pi to the daytime. In bed she has returned to Marcel Proust, who is not, apparently, over-stimulating.

Friday, April 08, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse: Mr Mulliner speaking

I wonder if anyone reads P.G. Wodehouse any longer? Apart from weirdos like me, that is. And was he ever respectable, in academic terms? I rather doubt it.

For them as don't know -- and there are always new generations coming along -- P.G. Wodehouse was once a very famous and successful English writer. Like a number of other illustrious names from the past (John Buchan, Margery Allingham) he has a Society of hard-core admirers, and you can find a useful biography on the Society's web site.

Born in 1881, Wodehouse gave up working in a bank in 1902, and from then on he had a string of successes both in the book world and in the theatre (his first play opened in New York in 1911). His speciality was humour, and he was enormously popular until the second world war. At that point Wodehouse had a little setback.

In 1940, Wodehouse and his family found themselves stuck in France when the German army invaded. They tried to get back to England but failed. When the Germans asked him to make some broadcasts to his fans in the neutral USA, Wodehouse ill-advisedly did so. These broadcasts were bitterly resented back in England, where he was regarded as a collaborator and traitor.

The result was that Wodehouse readers seldom raised their heads for a decade or two. However, by the 1960s I had several colleagues who were great fans, and public opinion gradually came round to the view that Wodehouse had been foolish rather than wicked. In 1975, he was knighted by the Queen, in recognition of his achievements, and he died a few months later at the age of 93.

Wodehouse produced a vast quantity of fiction. Like Terry Pratchett, he invented a universe of his own, based on England in the years from about 1900 to 1930. This was an England full of rich and idle people whose mostly misguided attempts to get married, avoid getting married, and so forth, could be made richly comic -- if you like that sort of thing.

The book of Wodehouse's which I have recently been reading consists of a number of short stories, as related by Mr Mulliner in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest. Mr Mulliner has a seemingly inexhaustible number of nephews, nieces, and second cousins once removed. Each of these seems to get himself, or herself, into terrible scrapes.

The stories are even more absurd, and the characters even more dim-witted and clueless, than in the average Wodehouse work -- and that is saying a great deal. In one, for instance, there is a budding romance between a wealthy young man (Archibald) whose sole talent, after a very expensive education, is his ability to give a wonderful imitation of a chicken laying an egg. The target of his affections is an equally wealthy and intellectually challenged young woman (Aurelia) who has spent her entire lifetime searching for a man who can give such an excellent imitation of a chicken laying an egg.

And yet, and yet... All does not go smoothly. Archibald is led to believe that Aurelia is in search of a chap with far more highbrow interests than the noises generated by broody hens, and so, when challenged by Aurelia, denies that he has that very talent which he has spent so many years polishing, and which would in fact make him the object of her undying admiration. Aurelia therefore gives Archibald the brush-off. In due course, however, Archibald discovers his mistake, performs nobly as required, and is rewarded by Aurelia's promise of marriage.

'Do it again,' Aurelia sighs. Archibald does do it again. He does it four times, in fact. And no, it's not what you're thinking, you dirty beast. It was the chicken thing that he did. Five times in all, and truly excelled himself.

As you will have gathered, you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Wodehouse.

Mr Mulliner Speaking was the second volume of Mulliner stories, and it was first published in 1929. The stories themselves are timeless, as is Wodehouse's prose; he was renowned as an elegant stylist. But the date shows in the spelling: we have to-day, and to-morrow, whereas today we would omit the hyphens; we have sha'n't, which is technically correct, but today we have dropped one of the apostrophes; and we have week end for weekend; and so forth.

A further indication of period is the fact that Wodehouse quotes from Swinburne, another writer who was once a household name but is now forgotten. Except, as I say, by a few weirdos like me.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Julian Fane: The Sodbury Crucifix

The Sodbury Crucifix (a novel) is a definite oddity, for a variety of reasons. We will start with consideration of the author, then the publisher, and finally the book.

The book's dust jacket tells us that Julian Fane became a full-time professional writer at the age of twenty, and The Sodbury Crucifix is his fortieth book. His first novel, Morning, was published in 1956 (when he was 29), and we are given some critics' assessments of it.

'The work of a literary artist, beautifully written,' said Harold Nicolson in The Observer. 'Seems to me to deserve to last for generations,' said John Betjeman in The Daily Telegraph. And both Nicolson and Betjeman were then big names, believe me. The New York Times Book Review was equally complimentary: 'Prose fiction of a rare, memorable, almost incomparable beauty.'

It so happens that I was around in 1956, when Morning came out, and was paying attention to the book world at the time. But despite the rave reviews, I can certainly tell you that Morning was not a well known book.

In the 1950s there were a number of new and young writing talents who did become famous, particularly towards the end of the decade: John Braine, Kingsley Amis, Colin Wilson, John Wain. One could easily name a dozen others.

If you Google any of the above names, with the titles of their famous books, you get hundreds, if not thousands, of links. But if you Google "Julian Fane" and the titles of his first book and his fortieth, you get just three results.

So, what we have here is a novelist who has been a full-time writer for about fifty years, has produced forty books, and was greeted on his first appearance with high praise. So how come I've never heard of him? (And neither, I suspect, have you.)

I can only guess at the answer. But after some detective work I think the answer is roughly as follows.

Julian Fane's first book probably belonged to a tradition which, in 1956, was about to die. That tradition involved writing novels which were admired as much for their style as for anything else; they were aimed at the book-reading and book-buying public of the 1930s, i.e. the wealthy, cultured, discerning, and well educated. Such books dealt with the lives of upper-class people and seldom concerned themselves with anything sordid or controversial. And Morning was published by John Murray, an old and well-respected literary firm: Byron's original publisher, in fact.

Elegant, graceful books of the kind that Morning evidently was were still being written and published in 1956. But they were not of much interest to the new book-reading public, and certainly of very little interest to the newspapers. And when John Braine's book Room at the Top appeared, in March 1957, everything changed.

Room at the Top was about an ambitious young man who did not come from a wealthy upper-class family, and he did not live in an old manor house with five acres of garden. He was a working-class lad from the north of England, blunt, plain-spoken, down to earth, and dead keen to get on in the world. His story involves adultery, ruthlessness, and greed. The newspapers loved all that, and they made Braine famous.

Julian Fane, I strongly suspect, could not compete with that sort of thing, and almost certainly didn't want to. I also suspect that he had private means -- i.e. he did not have to depend on his writing income to keep body and soul together. He was, in short, a gentleman amateur. Thus he was able to go on writing elegant and graceful books without, it would seem, ever making much impression on the public consciousness.

Well, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a gentleman amateur. Over the past three hundred years or so, such men have produced some of our greatest art and science: think of Byron, already mentioned, and Darwin.

So now let us consider the publisher of The Sodbury Crucifix.

The firm concerned is the Book Guild. And what do we know about the Book Guild? Well, it's no great secret: the Book Guild does about 80 books a year and is one of those firms which makes most of its money from authors (or companies) who have written a respectable book, can't find a mainstream publisher, and are willing to pay for publication. Which is not to say that the Book Guild will publish just anything: far from it; they are looking for workmanlike, professional-standard books, but books which no big publisher is going to regard as sexy.

The Book Guild's present web site is not as informative as it has been in the past, but when I've looked at it previously the books have seemed to be exactly what you would expect: solid, worthy stuff without many commercial prospects. If you want a subsidy publisher (perhaps a more accurate term, in this instance, than vanity publisher) then the Book Guild will do you a Rolls Royce job; and no doubt for a top-end fee. But there's no law against making money in publishing, even if it sometimes feels that way.

The Book Guild's list of current titles show six by Julian Fane, so that's where he's been in the past few years.

As for his other publishers: he started, as I say, with John Murray and has had books published by Constable, another highly respectable, old-established firm (now merged with Robinson). Constable also published Fane's Collected Works between 1997 and 2001 -- in five volumes. But the dust jacket of The Sodbury Crucifix tells us that for some years Fane was a partner in St George's Press, an enterprise which published 45 titles over 22 years and was then voluntarily wound up. An Amazon search suggests that quite a few of these 45 were written by Fane himself.

In addition to novels, it seems that Fane has produced various memoirs and accounts of his literary friends. One example is Best Friends : memories of Rachel and David Cecil, Cynthia Asquith, L. P. Hartley, and some others (1990).

Incidentally -- and I really don't understand this at all -- but St George's Press (allegedly wound up in 1969) is listed as co-publisher, with Hamish Hamilton, of How We Are Hungry, a collection of work by Dave Eggers, no less. Publication date 31 March 2005.

And now, at last, we come to The Sodbury Crucifix.

Let me say at once that I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it, with certain caveats. And we will dispose of the caveats first.

A book which quotes, on the dust jacket, a number of reviewers saying that the author produces outstanding prose, inevitably arouses certain expectations in the reader. And I am therefore obliged to say that I was not wonderfully impressed by the prose. For one thing, the author has a nasty habit of separating sentences with a comma, when a semi-colon would be far more appropriate. But perhaps, as he approaches 80, the author's eyesight is not what it was. The book is also a quiet, thoughtful, undramatic and unsensational story. So if you're expecting to be shocked you will be out of luck.

The book is set in England, in the present day, and the story, in essence, is circular. It reminds me of a book called (as I remember) The Memoirs of a Two-Guinea Watch, which I read when I was about ten. I can find no trace of any such book, on Google or in the bibliographies, so my memory may be at fault. But the story was simple enough. It was narrated by a watch, which originally belonged to a gentleman, was stolen, and then passed from hand to hand. The story was thus episodic, introducing the reader to a variety of characters, good and bad, young and old, et cetera.

The Sodbury Crucifix does exactly the same thing. A small bejewelled crucifix is found in a pond, and it passes from hand to hand, sometimes being sold, sometimes being given away. Each individual to whom the crucifix belongs has a series of experiences; these range from disastrous to highly beneficial; and the question is raised as to whether the crucifix brings with it good luck, bad luck, or absolutely no luck at all.

At the end the crucifix is returned to the church from which it was stolen.

This is precisely the kind of story that an amateur writer might come up with, but it is told with the skill of a professional. Furthermore, it's an enjoyable and interesting story, perceptive and moving -- so long as you aren't expecting something entirely different.