Friday, July 29, 2005

An apt description

Today's Times prints a letter from Terry Maher, chairman of Maher Booksellers Ltd. In it, he discusses the discounting of the latest instalment in the Harry Potter saga.

What has happened, as you are doubtless aware, is that almost no bookshop on the entire planet has sold the new Harry Potter book at the price 'fixed' or suggested by the publisher. Instead, everyone and his brother have been selling it at a massive discount.

In the UK the nominal price is £16.99, but Amazon, for instance, offer it at £8.99.

Maher describes this process as 'a form of commercial suicide.' And of course he is dead right. That's exactly what it is. It is also a form of lunacy.

Maher expresses the hope that this mistake will not be repeated. But it's exactly what happened with HP5 (and the others, once they became famous), so why on earth should the next, and last, one be any different?

And when, one might ask, was the book trade ever a sensible business to be in, from a commercial point of view? Businessmen with experience in other markets, who blunder briefly into publishing and bookselling, soon realise what a nonsense it is and retire hastily.

Luke Johnson, for instance currently Chairman of UK Channel 4 TV, once owned a book publisher and found it ‘a painful experience.’ Generally, he said, publishing is a ‘terrible business… a barely rational industry.’ The cash-flow characteristics are unattractive. ‘You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.’

In the circumstances, to describe the HP discounting as a form of commercial suicide seems quite restrained.

A new take on copyright

I like to think that I am a tolerant, easy-going, live-and-let-live, liberal-minded sort of chap. But Bookslut put me on to a lady called Mary Sue Pembroke, who has a quite breathtaking approach to the matter of copyright.

It seems that Mary Sue is a big Harry Potter fan, but she doesn't like the way the story goes in the latest instalment. So she's changed it. And issued a 'corrected version'.

Mary Sue says this: 'Whenever an author puts a work out into the universe, it is no longer their exclusive property anymore. Harry Potter belongs to all of us, not just Rowling.'

Well, that's a bit of a conversation stopper, I must say. So, Mary Sue, if HP now belongs to all of is, does that mean we all get to share in the royalties? Can I have mine paid direct into my bank, please, like my pension?

Empress Bianca

In March this year, a small UK publisher called Arcadia published Empress Bianca, a novel by Lady Colin Campbell, who (as I pointed out in a previous post) is an author mostly interesting for her non-fiction books on the Royal family. pointed to an entertaining article about Empress Bianca in the Independent.

It seems that Lady Colin's novel is not universally admired. A wealthy lady called Lily Safra has claimed that the book is a thinly veiled version of her own life. Being wealthy, Lily can afford some heavyweight lawyers. Being small, Arcadia can't. So Arcadia have withdrawn the book and promised to destroy all copies.

Lady Colin, meanwhile, takes a dim view of all this. Unless Lily Safra withdraws her claim, Lady C will sue her. Though for what, I am not entirely clear.

Well, I haven't read the book. But, assuming for the moment that Lady Colin can afford a decent lawyer, I would put money on her rather than the complainant. I would never in a thousand years advise anyone to write a novel about a real person. But, short of some sort of foolish admission from the author, I suspect that it is, generally speaking, quite hard to prove that a fictional character is based on anything other than the author's imagination.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The way things are

Well, I would have started posting again yesterday, but I had a little trouble with what turns out to be the browser cache. I'm sure you understand...

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I lost an hour's work yesterday, so here is a shortened version of what I said then. And who knows, this version may even be better.

The question that I want to address is this: Why is it that some books get reviewed in every newspaper? And not only reviewed, but favourably reviewed.

A case in point is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- a book that I wrote about myself a while back. Using the review-search facility on Publishers Marketplace (for which you have to subscribe) I can find 26 reviews in major US newspapers. Of these, 16 are favourable and 2 are negative; the rest are in the middle.

The negative ones echo my own opinion that the book really isn't very good. The New York Times describes it as 'a clunky and precious literary exercise... self-important and ham-handed.' But most other reviewers are impressed (or claim to be), including one who declares that Specimen Days is a work of genius.

Let us separate the particular from the general and go back to my question. Why is it that some books get reviewed everywhere? Even when they are written by first-time authors. And why is it that, when they are so widely reviewed, such books are mostly greeted with enthusiasm?

In thinking about this circumstance, over the last few days, I came up with three possible explanations.

1. Bribery.
2. You can fool some of the people some of the time.
3. A vague concept to which I gave the preliminary name The System.

Let's look at each of these.

First, bribery. Now before you get all huffy and puffy about me insulting a fine body of men and women, let us remember that it is quite normal in the book trade (and other trades) to purchase favourable treatment or a desired result.

For example, all publishers advertise. All big publishers pay money to the major bookselling chains to have their books prominently displayed or labelled 'Book of the Month'. And, nowadays, all major publishers entertain the big retailers at lavish functions (sometimes involving trips abroad) and introduce them to celebrity authors. All these things are just normal business practice.

But do I believe that reviewers are bribed, with used notes being handed over in brown-paper bags in supermarket car parks? No.

Second explanation: some people are stupid enough to believe anything. Even, apparently, that Specimen Days is a work of genius.

Well, yes, some people certainly are stupid enough, but that does not explain the ubiquity of reviews of certain books, or their (mostly) unanimous insistence that really quite average books are examples of excellence.

Which leaves us with explanation 3. A vague concept called The System.

Fortunately I came across an article by Matthew Parris, in last Saturday's Times, which enabled me to see more clearly what I it was that I had in mind when I spoke of The System.

Matthew considers the press reports of the recent London bombings, and concludes that there is 'an unwitting conspiracy' between four groups which leads to a particular slant being given to the news. A slant which may or may not turn out to be supported by the facts, but which is certainly not so supported at the present time.

Four powerful groups have a vested interest in arguing that the worldwide al-Qaeda network is fiendishly clever, powerfully effective, and deeply involved in the London bombings. These groups are: the press; the Government; the security services; and the terrorists themselves.

The press love sensation. 'We are all going to die' is a headline which will sell far more copies than 'Another fine day again today'.

If we must have bombs in London, the Government would prefer that they were planted by fiendishly clever men, so that there is at least some excuse for politicians' failure to have prevented the resulting deaths.

Ditto the security services. If the bombers are clever, highly trained, and backed by endless money, then it is hardly the security services' fault if terrorists are able to carry out attacks. Furthermore, if the enemy are frightfully clever chaps, then any arrests, or other forms of progress, are brilliant achievements on the part of the security men.

And finally, of course, the terrorists themselves very much hope that everyone will regard them as powerful and clever. That spreads terror, and it aids recruitment.

Thus, Matthew Parris argues, there is no wicked and malevolent conspiracy to distort the truth about the London bombings. But there is a 'line' on the news which suits the purposes of at least four groups with powerful vested interests. In the absence of firm evidence and reliable facts, it is that line which tends to be followed.

Let us take Matthew Parris's analysis and apply it to publishing.

In publishing there are four powerful groups with a vested interest in seeing to it that certain 'big' books are not only widely reviewed but also favourably reviewed. These groups are: the big publishers; the retail chains; the newspapers and those who write reviews for them; and the writers of books.

Every analyst of the modern book trade tells us that the trade lives or dies on the big sellers. A thousand small books, each with low individual sales, are not (apparently) any good to anyone. The trade lives or dies on the monsters.

Thus it is that the big publishers each select one or two books a month which will be given huge publicity budgets and a big push into the media. Often such books come from established authors or celebrity authors (ghosted if need be); but occasionally a completely unknown newcomer is touched by the magic wand. It is absolutely essential for the big publishers' financial health that most such books should succeed.

Ditto the booksellers. They do not want a thousand books a week which sit on the shelf for a year and then sell one or two copies each. What they want is one or two books a week which sell in thousands, pretty much as fast as they can unpack them.

The newspapers want a number of things. They want advertisements, which are paid for; and they want interesting stuff to fill up the white space. If need be, they will buy the serial rights to certain books, but they prefer to get review copies for free, and to be offered interview subjects for free. Free is so much more cost-effective.

By and large, it is not in a newspaper's interest to be dismissive of a book in which a book publisher has made a major investment. True, the occasional controversial hatchet job arouses interest and discussion. But if Clapham & Irons's big books are always panned, Clapham & Irons are pretty soon going to cancel their advertising. And when Clapham & Irons, by the grace of God, stumble across Princess Diana's Secret Lesbian Love Diary, the newspaper which has been invariably unkind is not the newspaper which gets the exclusive.

Same goes for the critics who write reviews. They enjoy the prestige of having their name in a quality newspaper, and the prestige has spinoff benefits. But if they systematically knock the big publishers' big books, it will not be long before the managing editor reminds them of the benefits of advertising and keeping on good terms with said publishers.

And, finally, the writers of books. All writers imagine that the book they are working on now is the one which will make their name. So they too will then get the star treatment. And they can't wait. So they are not (usually) going to criticise the status quo while they are waiting for their turn to come.

OK. There you have it. My question is answered.

It is not that there is some wicked cabal of sinister men who bribe and bully reviewers into declaring that very ordinary books such as Specimen Days are incomparable masterpieces. Such opinions are not bought -- not directly, at least. But for those who live and work and have their being in the book trade, it makes no sense at all that a book which a big publisher has selected for a big push should be panned.

It's not a conspiracy. It's just the way things are.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on the GOB until Wednesday 27 July (maybe).

Robert Littell: Legends

This has been an exceptional year for thrillers. We've had Charles McCarry's Old Boys, Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, and now Robert Littell's Legends. OK, so the McCarry book came out last year, technically, but I read it this year, and you get the point. Any one of these books would have made it a vintage year, whenever it appeared.

Littell is the author of 13 other novels, all of them (so far as I know) dealing with espionage. He is an American citizen, a former Newsweek journalist, and lives in France. And that seems to be about all he is prepared to say about himself. Apart from the fact that he did four years in the US navy, has visited Russia quite often, and likes climbing mountains. If he has a web site of his own I certainly haven't found it. The Barnes and Noble feature Meet the Writer is remarkably uninformative.

Another mystery is why Legends comes to be published in the UK by Duckworth. Since the ownership of publishing companies seems to change weekly, I had to look up Duckworth and find out where it stands now. As far as I can discover it is still independent. And Littell's last book before Legends -- The Company -- was published by Pan Macmillan. It seems to be have been a substantial success. So how come he ain't still with them? One would not normally expect a writer to leave a major company for a minor one; albeit one with pretty good taste. Anwyay, there he is, and Legends has appeared in print, which is the main thing.

I don't much care for the cover of Legends, which does little to attract the reader; and the subtitle, 'a novel of dissimulation', doesn't do much either. If you don't know of Littell's reputation you might well pass the book by.

The design is pretty good. Size: what in England is called royal octavo; my favourite for a hardback. The text is a decent size; leading satisfactory; and it's longish -- nearly 400 pages -- but not too long.

So what's it about?

Well, Legends is about just that. But in espionage terms. A legend is a (fairly) fictional life story which is invented for a man (or woman) who has to adopt a new persona and go spying for his country. In this case the lead character, Martin Odum, has worked for the CIA and has had a number of legends.

Unfortunately, as we begin to discover, Odum at some point has undergone some kind of traumatic experience and is no longer sure which of his various personas is the real him. He has a distressing habit of drifting in and out of character and mostly not at his own volition.

However, in the shape of the retired CIA officer Martin Odum, now working as a private detective out of Brooklyn, Odum sets out to find a particular man in order to persuade him to give his wife a divorce.

And we go on from there.

The structure of Legends is extremely subtle. The chapters move back and forth over time, but in the masterly hands of Littell this is not a problem. On the contrary, it feels entirely natural. Before long we meet Lincoln Dittman, the civil-war historian, and Dante Pippen, the Irish bomber, both of whom are Odum; or were, at various times. Or is he really one of them? And gradually, as the chapters pass, we begin to suspect that there might be a fourth man, lurking underneath all of them. Psychiatrically speaking, Odum (or whoever) suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder.

I don't think I have ever read a book in which a sense of dread is so cleverly built up. I am definitely not a reader of the horror genre, and certainly don't watch horror movies, so I don't think the emotional effect here is horror. It is more a sense of being appalled as one gradually realises what has happened to Odum. Or whoever.

The background is, of course, immensely sophisticated, as you would expect from a former Newsweek man who has spent a lot of time in Russia. And other parts of the world. Like McCarry, Littell is knowedgeable, experienced, and has a strong sense of history. He has studied what goes on in the world.

Also like McCarry, Littell offers an explanation for the way in which things happened. In Littell's case it is an explanation for many of the key events in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. And there is a beautiful sense of irony about it. If it is not entirely convincing (to me), that is not Littell's fault. It is because he asks us to believe that the CIA is little smarter and more organised than I take it to be.

I have a few minor quibbles. There are occasional typos which I found irksome in the face of so much excellence. 'Stationary with a UK letterhead' is mentioned; we hear of 'custom's offices'; and one or two others.

Some readers might also question whether the introduction of a love story is too much of a sop to the usual conventions of the genre. I wouldn't say so myself, because I think the need to find someone with whom he can be intimate (in every sense) is part of Odum's character.

Overall, this is a book which rises above criticism. It is, I suspect, more of a man's book than a woman's. For those who prefer good old blood and thunder it may be a tad too sophisticated. By and large, however, it would be unreasonable to expect a novel ever to be much better.

Somewhere recently I read a piece about one of those frightfully clever lit'ry writers in which said writer was quoted as saying that all he cared about was how posterity judged him. This was further proof, in my estimation, that these guys have their screws loose.

Sensible writers do not give much thought to how posterity will judge them; they concentrate instead on getting through to readers in the present. And besides, as Keynes pointed out, in the long run we are all dead.

That said, however, if I had to choose a few books which might well be looked at in a hundred years' time, to give some idea of what was really important in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I would include the three thrillers mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. I would include out the Michael Cunninghams of this world, who will, I suspect, be rapidly forgotten.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The previous Harry Potter

I've been reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Yes, I know there's a new one out, but I'm still reading the previous one, OK? It is 766 pages long, after all. And I know that you're probably sick of hearing about Harry, but there are at least three things that I think are worth saying about that book.

First, HP Phoenix is an interesting case study in book design. It would have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall when the production team discussed this book.

There are several problems. First, it's very very long. This means lots of pages, however you do it. Which means costs, in terms of paper.

And then there's the fact that you know you're going to sell several million copies, before you start. And you're going to have to ship them out so that everybody has crates full of the things out in the back room, enough to service anticipated demand and then some.

And, of course, you don't need to be all that bright to realise that if you're shipping several million copies, then factors such as the amount of space occupied by one book, and its weight, become highly significant factors. They always are significant factors, in any book. But the multiplier in this case is so astronomical that it must have focused minds rather more sharply than is often the case.

In the end the production team came up with a compromise which I heartily disapproved of when I first saw it. The book is a nasty squat little thing. Eight inches tall, something over five wide and two and a half inches thick. This is not an ideal shape to hold in your hand, though reading it has not proved to be quite as tiresome as I suspected it would be.

Then there's the text. Thirty-seven lines to the page, which is not too bad, but the margins are tiny and that makes the page look crowded. The font is also a tad small for my tired old eyes.

So, if the book satisfied the punters, and I believe it did, then it's in spite of, rather than because of, the efforts of the production department. On the other hand, the department which dealt with the profit and loss account on this job probably concluded that the right compromise had been reached.

The point of this first point about HP Phoenix, therefore, is that books are seldom designed first and foremost with the reader in mind. Would that they were, for, as I have remarked before, I believe that the layout of the text on the page has a profound if unconscious effect on the impact of the words on the reader.

The latest Harry Potter book, the one which came out a few days ago, seems to be slightly less long and consequently a bit more attractive to look at; it also feels more comfortable when held in the hand.

And what of the next (and last, I believe it is to be)? Well, I would recommend to the author that she makes it shorter still, something like the length of the first one.

Second point. This is going to sound a little obvious, but bear with me. J.K. Rowling writes for children.

Let me elucidate. It seems to me that HP Phoenix is written in a broad-brush style. The author does not exactly caricature her characters, but she paints them in without much subtlety. Just the sort of thing that young people appreciate.

Furthermore, it is by no means universally the case that successful children's books are written in that manner. In fact, I have a theory that most of the so-called children's classics are not books which children find particularly enjoyable. What they are is books that adults can read aloud to children, over and over again, without getting bored out of their skulls. Winnie the Pooh, for example. That book is no more successful with young listeners than a thousand others, but it is a book which Daddy and Granma can read aloud repeatedly with a certain amount of amusement and interest.

There are also a number of 'children's' books -- so-called classics -- which in my view are not enjoyed at all by the average child, and which are written, consciously or unconsciously, with an adult reader in mind. The various Alice books come into this category. The prose version of Peter Pan probably does too, but it's hard to tell because everyone is so familiar with a thousand and one different dramatised and animated versions that they seldom make their first acquaintance with the story by reading the book.

The third point I want to make about J.K. Rowling is one of technique. She is a textbook example of how to create emotion in the reader -- particularly the young reader. Well, it would be surprising if she wasn't really, wouldn't it?

The one thing that Rowling does supremely well is to follow the principle laid down first (I believe) by Thomas H. Uzzell. Specifically: Do not name the emotion being experienced by a character. Instead, describe the character's physical response to the circumstances.

It is no good, for instance, saying, 'Terror gripped Jane's heart.' This gets us nowhere. On the other hand, to say, 'Jane's heart began to pound in her ears' is on the right lines.

Here, for instance, is J.K. Rowling describing a nervous Harry. She does not say: 'Harry was feeling intensely nervous.' Instead she says: 'Mrs Weasley placed a couple of pieces of toast and marmalade in front of him; he tried to eat, but it was like chewing carpet.'

And here is one of J.K. Rowling's versions of the rapid-pulse response: 'Harry looked at his feet. His heart, which seemed to have swollen to an unnatural size, was thumping loudly under his ribs.'

And elsewhere: 'Harry's heart was beating a violent tattoo against his Adam's apple.'

Yes, it's easy to make fun of the changing location of Harry's cardiac system. But the eleven-year-old readers aren't complaining, are they? They are not much into detailed textual criticism of that sort. Instead they are busy turning the pages, and putting in advance orders for the next one.

PS. Added later. Mark Rayner has kindly pointed out to me that the new Harry P has been pirated in ebook form, presumably because there are fans who really want to see it that way. Read all about it here. Meanwhile, reports that pirated print versions hit the street in Mumbai (aka Bombay I believe) less than two days after the official publication by regular publishers.

Mark Rayner adds (thoughtfully) that he has just published his own first novel. It's about an immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who, in the year 2028, decides that he needs a sex-change operation. Hey, I don't sit here making these things up, you know. Go take a look.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Susan Hill and Long Barn Books

On 7 July I mentioned the English writer Susan Hill and her small publishing company, Long Barn Books. I subsequently came across a few more facts which deserve a wider circulation.

First of all, I failed to mention that two of Susan's books are currently set books for students taking various GCSE and A level English and Drama examinations. This no doubt means a welcome boost in sales and therefore royalties, but Susan points out to me that it also brings considerable burdens in the way of email correspondence.

At peak times, i.e. October/November, and then when the students are really panicking, in March-May, Susan gets 200 emails a week. All her correspondents, Susan says, 'want me to do their coursework/write their essays/answer the exam questions in advance/give them the magic formula for getting an A grade.'

What is depressing to Susan is how badly many of these students have been taught. Well, me too. I wrote about this at some length, nearly a year ago, in my post about English as she is tort. And things will not have improved much since. Got worse, if anything.

I have no doubt that Susan gives her student correspondents as much help as she can, bearing in mind her many other commitments. She tells me that she just hopes that they don't end up thinking that she wrote the books solely so that people could take exams on them. What is more, she hopes that they will continue reading after the exams are over. So do we all, but there are many competitors for young people's time and attention.

I think it is also necessary to give a bit more attention to Long Barn Books, the small publishing firm which Susan set up in 1997.

You may recall that I mentioned that Long Barn Books has decided to start publishing fiction, albeit on a very small scale, and has invited submissions. The object is to select one or two mss for publication.

Well, folks, so far there have been 569 mss sent in, so as usual you're fighting the odds. Half the world, says Susan, wants nothing more than to have a novel published; the other half wants nothing more than something to eat.

Anyone who has ever sat down to sift through a pile of 50 anything, such as job applications, will know that pretty soon your eyes begin to blur over. You realise that if you give each one its due amount of attention you will be occupied for a week if not for several months. So you begin to apply some pretty ruthless criteria for whittling the list down to a manageable number.

Sorry, but that's the way it is. No one, not even the Archangel in charge of submissions to the Lord Almighty, will read every word of your masterpiece.

For those who think publishing is easy, Susan points out that she not only puts up the money and takes the risk, but runs the entire operation single-handed. She uses freelance designers, as most publishers do, but she does all the packing and despatch herself. This is on top of writing a few books occasionally, doing a Master's degree, and looking after a family.

It's a great life being a writer. If you don't weaken.

Susan's latest book, by the way, is just out in hardback. Its title is The Pure in Heart, and the early readers on Amazon think it's terrific. The Pure in Heart is the second in a trilogy of crime novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. The first of the three books, The Various Haunts of Men, was published in paperback on the same day. All three books have been bought for TV by Bentley Productions, makers of the Midsomer Murders and Judge John Deed series.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Serious stuff

We are not yet in the silly season -- which is what British newspapers call August, when there is often little in the way of hard news. In fact, in the last week or two we've had some very hard news indeed. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that last week the publishing side of the book business was becoming intolerably silly, and I got a bit sick of it.

So, this week I will try to resist the temptation to write about the business side of the publishing industry (or at any rate the silly bits of it) and will concentrate instead on the serious business of books.

And what, I ask, could be more serious than a PhD thesis? (Thanks to Anne Weale for pointing this one out to me.)

The thesis -- well, it actually calls itself a dissertation -- was written by Eva Hemmungs Wirten, and was submitted for the degree of PhD at Uppsala University, Sweden, in 1998. It has been published by the University and is now available as a free PDF download.

The title of the published version of the dissertation is Global Infatuation, and it is a study of the romantic fiction which is published by the Swedish outpost of the Canadian firm Harlequin. Such fiction seems to be almost entirely translated from novels originally written in English.

Now why on earth should anyone read this thesis (all 276 pages of it)?

Well, for a start, if you are considering the possibility of writing romantic fiction yourself, Eva Hemmungs Wirten's research contains a good deal of useful information. Though you may, admittedly, have to dig for it.

Furthermore, anyone considering writing a novel of any kind might do worse than spend an hour browsing through this text, because it has quite a lot to say about the globalisation of literature and the power of the multinational media conglomerates.

As PhD theses go, this one is pretty readable. It is relatively free of the postmodern deconstructed gobbledygook in which academic discourse, in the field of English Literature, is so often conducted.

The main conclusion drawn is that the process of translating and editing novels which were originally written for the Canadian, American, and English markets has a major impact on how the global book becomes local -- in other words, how it is adapted to a form which will entertain Swedish readers.

This is scarcely an earth-shaking conclusion, but the main virtue of thesis -- from our point of view -- is the information conveyed along the way.

I am not going to try to summarise much of that information here. Suffice it to say that Harlequin are perhaps the brand leader in mass-market romantic fiction. In 1992 they sold 205 million books in 24 languages, on 6 continents, and in 100 separate markets. Which is a substantial volume of business.

Perhaps the most rewarding sections of the thesis are the Introduction and the Conclusion. The Introduction includes a survey of other academic studies of romantic fiction, and makes the point that it is only in the last twenty years or so that romance has been considered worthy of serious attention.

Well, I have said it before and I say it again. It is nonsense to think of fiction as a hierarchy. There are no sound reasons (known to me) for arguing that fiction is, so to speak, a tower block, with the 'best' at the top and the 'trash' at the bottom. (Guess where romance is normally placed in this hierarchical view.)

Au contraire. Fiction is best viewed as a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. Or, to continue the building analogy, as a street with many bookshops, each of which specialises in one particular genre. Each of these shops has an identical real-estate value. There ain't no prime sites.

In any event, the survey of other academic studies provides a good starting point for anyone who wants to think seriously about romantic fiction, whether as a potential author or as a reader.

Another useful chapter is Chapter Six, where the author analyses no less than 56 titles taken from two Harlequin series, published in Sweden between 1980-92. Obviously, tastes will have changed somewhat since those times -- particularly, I suspect, in the frank depiction of sexual matters -- but the analysis will surely help a romance writer to develop a clearer concept of the key elements of the genre.

The concluding section, 'Tying Up Loose Ends', demonstrates a few things which ought to be obvious but which seem to have escaped the notice of some highbrow critics. One such conclusion is that to label romantic novels as 'non-books', as an academic gang called Coser, Kadushin & Powell once did, is unjustified. To those who read widely in this genre, some romantic novels have precisely the same emotional effects as the 'great classics' do (allegedly) on those who consider themselves among the cultural elite.

One of the unanswered questions which is thrown up in this discussion is whether the Harlequin romance permits an author to retain any individuality. 'How does the Harlequin writer construct her identity in a global configuration?'

In fact, now that I come to look at it again, this concluding section of the thesis offers any number of interesting lines of thought. One such is this: perhaps romantic fiction is so despised and feared in some quarters because it opens the door to 'everywoman'; thus illustrating Andreas Huyssen's observation that 'the fear of masses is always a fear of woman.'

I particularly like Eva Hemmungs Wirten's conclusion that the classical category romance never ceases to affirm that relationships with others are possible (her italics). In fact, the romance 'brings about a double resolution: on the one hand, sexual tension dissolves into married bliss, and on the other, family and work life, which clash for most of the plot, are ultimately reconciled.'

There are those who argue that romantic fiction is, at best, on a par with soap opera and Hello magazine: in other words, unworthy of serious attention. But Eva Hemmungs Wirten doesn't think so, and neither do I.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Never let it be said

Just occasionally, you may come across comments in the more 'elevated' realms of the literary world which might lead you to believe that those who write in the 'lesser' genres -- crime, science fiction, and romance -- are, somehow or other, people of lesser intelligence, not so well bred, and, frankly, not at all the sort of people you would want to marry your daughter (or son, as the case may be).

Well, t'ain't so. Not in any respect. And the genre writers are certainly not inferior when it comes to IQ and general knowledge. As was proved this week on BBC TV.

Here in the UK we have a TV show (which I think may have been American originally) called University Challenge. On this show, two teams of four players compete against each other in answering questions involving general knowledge.

In fact, the term 'general knowledge' gives no indicatiion of the obscurity, complexity, and overall difficulty of the questions -- questions which are normally, as the title indicates, aimed at some of the brightest students at the nation's top universities.

From time to time, however, the quiz is opened up to teams of professionals. Four lawyers, or four medics, or whatever. This week's round featured a team from the staff of Wisden and a team drawn from the membership of the Romantic Novelists' Association.

Wisden, by the way, is the annual bible of the game of cricket. The staff are thus people with an astonishing memory for obscure facts and statistics. And, naturally, they are all educated chaps. In the ordinary way you might have expected them to outscore the Romantic Novelists without even breaking into a sweat.

Not so!

I saw the last few minutes of this contest myself, and it turned out that the RNA gave the Wisden team a humiliating thumping. Hit them for six, in fact (cricketing allusion). The final score was 245 to 145.

This result did not escape notice in the press (and thanks to Anne Weale for the links). The Times seems to have been astonished:
This was a far cry from the outcome many of us had imagined when the draw was announced. Among the competitors entered for University Challenge: The Professionals, the Romantic Novelists were widely regarded as the fancy dans -- hopeless romantics, indeed. Call that a job? Whereas the Wisden team would be bringing to the table the rangy, all-encompassing worldliness that arises from following cricket more closely than any people on earth follow anything.
On the day, however, the Wisden team was unable to distinguish a Madagascan tomato frog from a green tree frog. The RNA lot, on the other hand, had as one of their team Anne Ashurst, who was the individual winner of another TV quiz, Mastermind.

The Daily Telegraph was also faintly astonished by the Wisden defeat.
The Wisdenites might have expected an easy first-round passage against the Romantic Novelists' Association, but they had reckoned without Anne Ashurst, Mills and Boon author and Mastermind champion of 1997. Dark mutterings of 'Ringer' could also be heard when it emerged that the RNA's Stephen Bowden, a fiend on the buzzer, is not known to have published a novel.
Crying 'foul' you notice. Shocking bad form, in my opinion, if a team doesn't know how to lose gracefully. Listen, Stephen Bowden is a member of the RNA, OK? And that's all it takes to be on the RNA team. You don't have to be Barbara Cartland.

As it happens, Stephen Bowden has a new blog all of his own, and he describes himself as a writer of Regency romps. And he has a picture of himself looking like one of Jane Austen's heroes. So there.


The Literary Saloon drew my attention to a new (?) web site called Britlitblogs.

Britlitblogs does what it says on the label. It provides you with a summary of the recent posts on six UK-based blogs dealing with the book world; it also provides links to a number of other British blogs of the same type.

The GOB, you will be pleased to hear, is included in Britlitblogs. Not in the main list of six, but at the bottom.

Right underneath the link to the GOB, there is a link to a blog called Pornlit, which is, of course, nothing to do with me. Heaven forfend that you should think so. But I went and had a look at it anyway. Purely in the interests of research.

Hmm. All sort of oddities here. One of which is a link to a piece about the history of vibrators, from which there is another link to a slide show about same. I realise that you wouldn't be remotely interested in any of that, but I just thought I'd mention it.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

More productivity

Last week I mentioned Charles Whiting, an extraordinarily productive novelist. Yesterday I referred to an article by Dr Sam Vaknin on the future of the book. And Vaknin, it turns out, is pretty much as productive in non-fiction (mostly) as Whiting is in fiction. Which is to say formidably so.

After yesterday's piece appeared, Sam wrote to me to mention that a lot more of his stuff is available online. And indeed it is. There is so much of it, in fact, that you can easily get lost.

You might start, however, by going to Sam's Busiweb page, where you will find a substantial number of other articles about various aspects of online publishing and trading. This looks like a valuable resource. My only criticism is that (unless I missed it) the articles are not dated, and in such a fast-moving field as internet technology that is an important factor.

Given that Sam is an expert on narcissism, and given that I had suggested that narcissism is a condition which might very well affect writers, to a greater or lesser degree, I was interested to see what he had to say on such a connection.

Quite a lot, it turns out. Some of it relates to himself, and it is, as he says, brutally honest and in startling detail.

You can find, for instance, an interview with Sam in which he discusses narcissism and its impact upon his own work as a writer. There is another link to a piece in which he discusses why he writes poetry.

There is further substantial collection of Sam's essays and journal entries linked on a page headed The Mind of a Narcissist. And if you poke around in there you might find more on the theme of writing and narcissism. There is an interesting extract from an FAQ page, in which Sam discusses the following question: Are narcissists addicted to being famous?

His answer, essentially, is You bet. He goes on to say this: 'The narcissist's only bad emotional stretches are during periods of lack of attention, publicity, or exposure. The narcissist then feels empty, hollowed out, negligible, humiliated, wrathful, discriminated against, deprived, neglected, treated unjustly and so on.'

Oh dear. I think I'll stop there.

However, if you want to know more, you could try using the search facility for the terms 'narcissism' and 'writing' within Sam Vaknin sites. You will be given a list of 61 documents. The second on the list is another interview in which Sam talks about his own condition. His problems, he says, are here to stay; the prognosis is 'poor and alarming'.

By this time you may wish to know a little more about Sam Vaknin's background, which (inevitably) he has provided in some detail. You will see that he has held a number of senior posts in a variety of organisations and has also spent some time in the slammer. Well, there you go. Could happen to most of us. It doesn't seem to have slowed him up much, though. As a matter of fact he loved it in jail. Suited him rather well.

All in all, Sam Vaknin is a man of rather frightening energy. It would probably be worth your while to dip into what he has written. You might learn something, either about the modern world or about yourself; I certainly did.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The long tail again

This is a piece which I began to write last week. But, now that I come to check it over, I see that it nicely continues yesterday's discussion about the future of the book.

In the past you and I have occasionally given consideration to the long tail. Well, I have, anyway. And if your eyes go all blurry at the very thought of reading about that obscure subject, then all I can do is encourage you to persevere. Because for writers, and indeed publishers, the long tail represents opportunity. And it is an opportunity which is considerably more valuable today than it ever was in the past.

In brief, the long tail is a term used to describe a feature of statistical distributions when illustrated in the form of a graph. For instance, there are a few words which are used very often -- the word 'the' being an example -- and a very large number of words which are used very seldom -- words such as 'disintermediation'. If you plot a graph showing this kind of distribution you get a sharp peak on the left of the graph and a long flattish line tailing off to the right. This is the 'long tail' (aka heavy tail, power-law tail, or Pareto tail). See our old friend Wikipedia for details.

Whether you can visualise this picture or not, all you need to remember is that in publishing there are a small number of individual titles which sell in huge numbers, perhaps a million copies each; and there are also a large number of individual titles (approaching 200,000 a year in the US) which sell in small numbers, perhaps a few hundred copies each.

One man who has given much thought to the long tail is Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and author-to-be of a book on the long-tail phenomenon. He runs a blog with that very title, telling us how he is getting on with the book -- and, as you will see, he obtains useful feedback from readers along the way. (Thanks to Publishers Lunch for the link.)

In his post of 4 July, Chris has a piece about the effect of filters on the long tail. He doesn't like the term filters but is using it for the moment. There are, he suggests, two kinds of filters: pre-filters and post-filters.

An example of a pre-filter, in the book world, is the editor of the slush pile, whether in an agent's office or a publisher's. The editor goes through the material on offer for publication and selects the 'best' from her point of view. The 'best' ms might be defined as the one most likely to win the Booker/Pulitzer, or the one most likely to sell a million, or whatever.

A post-filter is someone who sorts out what he or she thinks is the very 'best' of the output in a given field, 'best' being defined according to one of an infinite number of definitions. So, for instance, we might have a very keen science-fiction fan who tries to read everything in the field and runs a blog where he recommends the best of what he has found.

Such post-filters can be related to very narrow niches indeed. For instance, suppose someone has read every book on breeding budgerigars which has been published in the last forty years. Such a person is well placed to advise any newcomers to that hobby as to which are the best books to get hold of. What is more, such a person is ideally placed to comment on any new books which appear.

OK, so this has all been dry as dust so far. What's the point?

The point, as far as books in general are concerned, and particularly where novels are concerned, is that the long tail offers opportunity.

True, it is still hard as hell to get a novel published by a top publisher. It always was. It always will be. But if all else fails, you can now publish it yourself, in any one of a dozen formats from cheapo ebook to relatively expensive hardback. Costs are falling all the time because of new technology in the printing industry.

When published, this book can be offered in the marketplace. And, because of the internet, you can now make that book available all over the world. You can publicise it all over the world. You can send it to any and all post-filters known to you. And the search engines will direct other filters to it, even if you don't.

In other words, even obscure books on obscure subjects can now be published with a reasonable expectation that, if you do a little work, the thing will become known in the niches where those who might be interested are lurking.

I submit that this phenomenon changes everything. The world is now quite different from what it was even ten years ago. This alters the whole balance of power in publishing and it alters the entire economics of the book industry.

The long tail, in short, is a phenomenon which offers opportunity to writers, whether they publish their output themselves or work through established firms.

And it offers opportunity to publishers. There is a school of thought which holds that the long tail is actually worth more to output producers than is the short head. The short head, particularly in publishing, gets all the public attention: reviews in the top papers, interviews, book-signing sessions, and so forth. But, properly handled, the long tail provides modest returns for much less investment, and can go on providing those returns for years on end, as more and more filters find it and recommend it. And because there are so many separate items in the long tail, they can, collectively, be more valuable than the short head.

Let us take an example more or less at random and see where it leads us.

Suppose you quite enjoy reading mystery stories. And, within that category, you quite enjoy stories with female detectives, set in England, in the 1930s.

OK, so you go to Google. You type in the following search terms: 1930s "lady detective" England. You get 94 results. Click on the most likely-looking, (Women of Mystery), and you get a mass of promising leads to wade through. Couldn't be simpler.

OK, so we haven't, so far, turned up any new books. But you get the idea. You can locate stuff in ways which were completely unimaginable a few years ago.

That's how a reader can operate. What about a writer?

Well, more or less any writer who is smart enough to know how to turn on a computer and locate this blog could learn how to produce a PDF file. And a PDF file can be sold as an ebook through an outlet such as ebookad.

Anyone can do it. I did it myself with a book of photographs called Avebury in Winter. The last time I bothered to look at the sales record, it had sold six copies. But I didn't do it for the money. I did it for the pleasure of making the book (akin to the pleasure of doing a flower arrangement, I dare say -- that's Mrs GOB's field). I might have given the ebook away free but there has to be a minimum charge on ebookad, and I wanted to have it placed where the search engines could locate it easily, and where ebook browsers might also find it.

Now if you too happen to have produced something which might also be of interest to six people in the entire world, you know what to do. Of course, if your book is actually a heap of crap then no one can help you. The filters will find you out pretty damn quick. But you might learn how to do better next time.

Now do you see why I think the long tail is worth your attention?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The future of the book found an article in the Global Politician which is worth a look.

Written by Sam Vaknin, the article is entitled 'The Future of the Book'. And indeed it does say something about the future; but for the most part it is a review of the history of the book. It reveals how, over the centuries, the same attitudes have been manifested over and over again, on the part of those involved in the book trade.

Vaknin (see his biog at the end of his article) seems tolerably well qualified to be writing about this sort of thing. And he is also the author of no less than 22 free ebooks. Some of these turn out to be about narcissistic personality disorder, which raised its pretty little head on this very blog only last week.

Vaknin's discussion of the future of the book is exactly the sort of material that should be read by those in search of a publisher (which seems to be almost everyone these days). It should also be read, of course, by those involved in publishing. But most of them are going to be far too busy doing lunch and phoning people.

More on copyright in characters

Here are a few more thoughts on the question of copyright in characters, which I discussed last week. These extra thoughts are prompted by C.E. Petit, Esq., author of the Scrivener's Error blog, who kindly wrote to me afterwards.

Fortunately, I am not tempted to write anything involving anyone else's characters. I have done this in the past -- see Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, written under the pen-name Anne Moore -- and on that I took legal advice (having been caught out once before). But I am not going to do it in the future because past experience suggests to me that the copyright complications are so enormous that it just ain't worth the hassle. The C.E. Petit communication makes me even more convinced of that.

To see what I mean, pay a visit to the Warped Weft. There Petit gives us an enormously long discussion of copyright issues relating to fan fiction and in terms of US law. Whether you wish to, or need to, read all the way through this, you should be able to see at a glance that the topic is not simple. (If you print it out, the Petit piece runs to 31 pages.)

Mr Petit's overall conclusion, if you scroll through to the end, is that copyright law is not the best tool for analysing the rights and wrongs of using other people's characters. The best tool is trademark legislation. However, for a variety of reasons, mainly the self-interest of those involved, we are likely to have to put up with using copyright law in the foreseeable future. And since (it seems to me) copyright law varies significantly even between two nations such as the USA and the UK, the result is, more often than not, wonderful pay days for the lawyers and not much enlightenment for anyone else.

If you follow up some of the leads in the Petit discourse you will find that there are quite a few legal professionals who are also much interested in this and related copyright problems. I for one am deeply grateful to the C.E. Petits of this world, who give us the benefit of their expertise as part of the gift economy.

Once again, lest we should ever take it for granted, it is worth saying that, when I was a lad, very little of such informed, detailed, and valuable comment was available anywhere. Let alone free, and at the click of a mouse.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Martin Cruz Smith: Wolves Eat Dogs

Now this is a novel. It isn't perfect, but it is, so to speak, a wolf of a novel. It is powerful. It snarls. And it bites. Compared with Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days is a just a pampered French poodle. There just ain't no comparison at all.

Martin Cruz Smith seems to be a private sort of a man. Biographical details are sparse. He seems, officially, to have begun writing in 1970. But that was under his own name. I had the very definite memory that he had written a substantial number of down-market books under other names, and through Google I was able to find some evidence.

Simon Quinn is apparently one of Smith's early pen-names. Smith also seems to have churned out at least a couple of books in the Nick Carter series. In any event, my point is that he learnt his trade by producing several (I suspect a lot of) books for the pulp-fiction market. Not as many as Charles Whiting, whom we discussed the other day, but enough to have learnt his trade the hard way.

And that is important. What it means is that Smith is not one of your arty-farty, three lines of tortured genius a day crap artists. This man can write.

Wolves Eat Dogs is another in the series featuring the Russian investigator Arkady Renko. The fifth, by my count. And if you haven't read them already you should start with Gorky Park and go on from there.

Wolves is mainly about Chernobyl. Who killed who and why is almost a sideshow. Chernobyl is the main exhibit. I assume you know about Chernobyl, but if you don't then you can find some rather guarded and carefully phrased information here.

Basically, what happened at Chernobyl was that the Russians had a nuclear power station running full blast. And everything was OK until they did something silly. And then they panicked. And in those days no one could wipe their arse without permission from Moscow. And no one wanted to tell Moscow the truth. And so massive amounts of radioactivity spewed out in an invisible cloud which spread the most virulent poison all over the land. The wind picked it up and blew it... well, pretty much all over the whole world, actually.

Today there is a Zone of Exclusion all around Chernobyl. And it is here that Arkady Renko goes to investigate a couple of mysterious deaths. And that's about all you need to know really. In passing, Smith provides what is, I hope, a fictional explanation of how the Chernobyl catastrophe came about. But it sounds pretty convincing to me.

Smith's writing style is slightly disjointed in places. But at his best he generates that hypnotic quality which only the finest writers have: a quality which is almost universally missing in those writers who are most praised for their wonderful style by the literary powers that be.

Whereas Cunningham strives for significance, and fails miserably to achieve it, Smith would never worry his head about any such thing; but despite that he produces a novel which generates a great deal of thought. No one in the UK likes to mention it -- and especially not during the recent election -- but the fact seems to be that nuclear power is the UK's best (and perhaps only) option for electricity generation in the near future. So that alone makes the whole topic of Chernobyl one which bears thinking about. Smith, in short, could out-signify Cunningham with one hand tied behind his back.

If you pick up this book in a shop, and want a taster, try page 169 onwards. Here Arkady is invited to dinner in the home of an old peasant couple who have returned to live in the exclusion zone, despite the radiation, because it is where they grew up and where they want to die.

The scene is wonderfully evocative, in passing, of the communist mentality. One of the characters describes what happened in the control room of Reactor Four on the night of 26 April 1986. And here, as through the rest of the book, there is a marvellous streak of black humour. Given a mere fifty thousand years or so, the effects of the mistakes made on that night may eventually dissipate, and the area around Chernobyl may return to normal.

Smith has given various interviews about his research trip to Chernobyl. One was in the Observer.

It is worth mentioning in passing that this is a very well designed book (UK edition; can't speak for the US). I like the layout on the page, and, as I have mentioned before, I feel that this has a strong, if unconscious, effect on the reader's enjoyment.

If I was a religious man I would go down on my knees and thank God for classy commercial writers like Martin Cruz Smith. If they didn't exist, I would be forced to consume a diet of the best that the literati can offer. And on the whole I think I'd rather shoot myself.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Copyright in characters

About twenty-five years ago I wrote two television scripts for an American producer called Sheldon Reynolds.

Reynolds at that time either owned or controlled the copyright in Conan Doyle's famous character Sherlock Holmes. The precise nature of Reynolds's involvement is obscure; there was eventually a court case about it. The online account of this case seems to have been recently removed, but the Google cached version may still be available when you read this. Should you care enough to bother.

Anyway, in the 1970s Reynolds seems to have exploited the Conan Doyle copyright to the full. Scarcely a week went by without a Sherlock Holmes meets Dracula (or some such) film or novel coming out.

When I knew Reynolds he was preparing to film a series of 26 half-hour episodes featuring the great detective. I adapted one of the Holmes stories -- The Speckled Band -- and wrote one other original script. The series was then filmed in Warsaw, presumably because costs were lower there.

The point about this is that no one in those days seems to have questioned the claim that use of the character Sherlock Holmes was protected by the Conan Doyle copyright. The copyright was in fact about to expire, fifty years after Conan Doyle's death, and quite a few people were reportedly preparing to make use of the character for free, after the expiry. (The copyright was later revived when English law extended the copyright period to seventy years after an author's death.) But, I repeat, no one doubted that he who controlled the Conan Doyle copyright could also say yea or nay to the further use of the character Sherlock Holmes.

Well, if you're a regular reader of this blog you will know that at least one UK expert on copyright takes a different view -- at any rate under English law. I referred only the other day to an article by Nicola Solomon, which is available online. And Ms Solomon clearly takes the view that anyone can use a character for a sequel, without permission and without paying a fee, subject to a few simple precautions.

Ms Solomon's first sentence seems pretty unambiguous to me: 'One might assume that it would be an infringement of copyright to use characters and style developed by another person. Not so; copyright protects the words and form in which ideas are expressed, not the ideas or characters themselves.'

What I want to do today is draw attention to a case where this question of the right to use characters in a sequel or spinoff work may turn out to be of considerable significance. And it may also turn out to be a bonanza for the lawyers of this sceptred isle.

Booktrade info provides a link to a news item on a James Bond web site, known as This reveals that there is to be a trilogy of books, published by the ancient firm of John Murray, no less, entitled The Moneypenny Diaries. These will be, or purport to be, the diaries of that very same Miss Moneypenny who served as secretary to James Bond's boss in the original novels by Ian Fleming. The first book is due out on 10 October.

There is no mention yet, I notice, of publication in the US, or anywhere else, where the laws will probably be different. Though whether, in these days of online booksellers, that makes any practical difference at all, I wouldn't care to say. You can already find the UK publication listed on the German Amazon site. claims that, when they first heard about these books, they approached Ian Fleming Publications (IFP), the company which controls the literary rights in Fleming's work, for further details. And, when asked about the books, IFP denied all knowledge; they said, however, that they would look into the matter. suggests that this denial might, perhaps, have been IFP 'playing coy' -- but suggests no reason why they should do so. And The Moneypenny Diaries, they add, could be the first in a series of 'new promised projects from the heirs of Ian Fleming.'

In search of clarification, I turned to the official IFP web site, on which, so far as I can discover, there is no mention of Ms Moneypenny or her trilogistic diaries.

Under the FAQ page on the IFP site there is, however, a warm-hearted and encouraging statement, as follows:
How can I get my James Bond novel published?
James Bond novels and short stories may only be published under licence from Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. We do not accept unsolicited material and it is company policy to return any such material unread.
So, the question is this. Have John Murray and their author, Kate Westbrook, come to an agreement with the owners of the Fleming copyright or have they not? And, if they have not, will IFP test the matter in the English courts?

This question is one of considerable importance. There are a number of UK companies which make millions of pounds a year from exploiting the copyrights of famous authors: Chorion being perhaps the most famous. Such companies are not going to be happy if someone sets a precedent proving that, under English law, anyone can use their precious characters in a sequel or spinoff without paying them a share of the proceeds.

Well, it shouldn't be long before we know the answer. If The Moneypenny Diaries is part of the official IFP package, IFP will doubtless be plugging the trilogy on their web site, on or before publication date.

And if the opposite is true, and a court case ensues, that can't possibly take longer to resolve than, oh, two or three years.

Publishing Arrogance

P.D. Han has announced what he refers to as a 'hot' new book on the forum, which permits plugs of this sort.

The book in question is entitled Publishing Arrogance, and it reportedly tells the tale of one man's struggle to achieve publication.

I don't quite know what to make of this. At first I thought it might be some kind of complicated postmodern satire on the attempts of the unwashed and unpublishable to enter the holy sanctums of the literati. But having followed up a few of the links I think perhaps not. Perhaps it really is what it says on the box.

In any event I don't think I'm about to read the book, but I thought you might like to know.

The main link in the announcement, to the author's web site, doesn't seem to work, so use this one instead, and then proceed from there.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Opportunity taps

Susan Hill is a British writer who has had a large amount of success without ever quite becoming a household name. She is also a publisher.

On her main web site you can find a lengthy biography in which she describes her early success, later setbacks, and says much about her family life. However, I remember her chiefly for the stage play The Woman in Black, which was adapted from one of her books. This play opened in the West End in 1989, and, somewhat to my amazement, it is still running today. So that's a very nice little earner.

A few days ago the Guardian kindly provided Susan with space to write about her latest venture, which is to start publishing fiction. Sadly, not a lot of fiction. One book a year to begin with.

In the late 1990s Susan set up a publishing venture called Long Barn Books; this has so far concentrated on non-fiction. However, on the general principle that it is time to give some opportunity to a new writer, in the way that she once was given an opportunity, Susan has set up a sort of informal competition. Unpublished writers are invited to submit mss, and one will be chosen.

The selected book will be given a somewhat bigger push than is often the case with first novels, and overall the deal looks attractive. Full details can be found here.

Unfortunately, only those writers who are both UK citizens and living in the UK are eligible.

Buy a friend a book

Debra Hamel has set up a new site, known as BAFAB, which encourages people to buy books for their friends. Not just because it's the friend's birthday, but just for the hell of it.

Well, I'm all for people buying books. Especially for me. (Can I choose?)

Debra has determined, since it's her baby, that there shall be four BAFAB weeks in each year: the first weeks of January, April, July, and October. So you just missed the first one, on account of the GOB being too idle to mention it earlier.

But hey, you can do it anyway, even if the week's over. No one is going to complain. They might be suspicious -- hmm, is he trying to get into my knickers? -- but they won't complain. Unless, possibly, you are foolish enough to buy them the latest Michael Cunningham.

Debra Hamel, by the way, is a woman of depressing and shaming energy. She writes books -- e.g. Trying Neaira, which looks pretty damn racy to me; not sure I'm old enough to read it. She blogs in general terms on the deblog. And she also runs a book-review blog. And now she's running the BAFAB thing. And all of these have a distinctly professional look to them.

Well, she's young. I guess that's what it is.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Productivity rules

The Literary Saloon, whom God preserve, gives us a link to a story in the Yorkshire Post about a man who has written (and had published) some 325 books.

His name is Charles Whiting, and I thought I hadn't heard of him until I was three quarters of the way through the article, and then the pen-name Leo Kessler appears. Well, I've heard of him all right. Though you probably won't have, because you're not as old as me, and you probably don't poke your nose into as many dark corners of the book trade as I do.

The Kessler books are interesting in that they are novels about the second world war written from the German point of view. And they normally feature the average squaddie -- or grunt, I think is the American term -- in other words, soldiers of the very lowest rank. The covers usually feature a storm-trooper in uniform. And the bibliography of Kessler novels is far too long to count. The series began in 1974 and the latest one appeared in 2004.

All in all, Whiting is precisely the kind of fiction writer that I admire most. Have I ever read him? Not knowingly. But that's not the point. Here is a man who writes six days a week, and has done for decades. He knows how to do the job. He is a professional. And I know of no higher compliment.

Whiting never gets interviewed in the Guardian or shortlisted for the Booker. The Times Lit Supp is never going to review him. And he didn't take an MFA. But he has learnt the hard way how to communicate with readers, and he obviously has battalions of fans. And I venture to suggest that he makes most literary fancypants self-obsessives look like the rank amateurs that they are.

Publishers' profits and problems

For some months now there has been a row going on in UK publishing. It is not a row that has been conducted in public, but occasionally little snippets of information have drifted to the surface.

Basically, what has happened is this. WH Smith, which is certainly one of the UK's top two or three booksellers, has been unhappy with the supply of books from publishers and their distributors. Sales, it seems, have been lost because supplies of hot sellers have not been available as and when needed. So WHS decided to teach publishers a lesson which would force them to improve matters. WHS instituted, apparently, a system of fines for the late delivery of books ordered.

In other words, this a fairly typical trade dispute. We have two parties kicking lumps off each other in the fight for a bigger share of the customer's money. In this case, Random House UK seem somehow to have taken the role of spokesman for publishers in general.

Yesterday's Times, however, in the business section, had an interesting discussion of this situation which dragged in other factors besides the need for companies to make money. The Times man, Robert Cole, raised the question of publishers' public duty. So to speak.

Cole tells us that publishers have a duty to make money. True. Yet they also have, he claims, 'a philanthropic function to perform as well.' What he appears to mean by this is that publishers have some sort of civic duty to publish 'good books' which are never going to make any money but which 'should be published'.

He goes on to suggest that 'too few people in the book-publishing industry have any clear idea of the location of the dividing line between these two honourable pursuits.' As a result, he declares, we are getting, on the one hand, too many books which fail to make a profit, and, on the other, too few titles that ought to appear purely for our edification.


Well, with the greatest respect to Mr Cole, I don't think he has quite got his ideas sorted out here. Like most journalists, he no doubt rattled off his piece in response to an item of news -- as indeed I am doing myself, at this very moment. And both of us might benefit from taking a little longer before lifting our metaphorical pens. But in any case I beg to differ with him.

First, I can see no reason for supposing that commercial publishers have any sort of duty, whether legal or moral, to publish books which lose money. On the contrary, the ideal state of affairs for a commercial publisher would be to publish nothing but books which turn a profit. The fact that this has proved impossible to achieve is neither here nor there in terms of goals.

Some academic publishers, on the other hand, definitely do have a duty to publish worthwhile books, almost regardless of profitability. ('Worthwhile', in this context, means worth publishing in the eyes of competent academic judges.) For a number of years I ran a small publishing company which was part of a UK university. Under the terms of its royal charter that university had a clear obligation to disseminate knowledge. And the charter said nothing about making a profit in the process.

None of this, of course, has anything whatever to do with the fairly mechanical process of ensuring that books are printed in sufficient numbers, and are delivered to booksellers as and when needed. On that issue, my sympathies, for once, are with WHS.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A different diagnosis

You and I are, of course, completely sane. Furthermore, we are well-balanced human beings. Indeed you and I are so normal that we are abnormal in terms of our normality.

However, you may have noticed that other members of the writing community are not quite in the same boat. They exhibit, shall we say, certain disturbing symptoms. And you may have wondered, from time to time, as I do, What the hell is wrong with these people?

A few months ago I suggested that the answer might be that some writers are suffering from obsessive/compulsive disorder. But that does not seem to fit the bill in all cases. Fortunately, thanks to Dr Thomas Stuttaford, medical correspondent of the London Times, I am now able to offer a different diagnosis.

Stuttaford, by the way, is a formidable writer himself. He doesn't do fiction, of course, but he is mighty prolific. Scarcely a day goes by without a few paragraphs, and often a lengthy article. President Marmaduke of Boing-boing has a stroke at nine-thirty p.m., London time, and the next morning's paper will have a column telling us all about strokes, the likelihood of recovery, complicating factors in African presidents who have been using too much Viagra, and all like that.

What is more, come the weekend, Dr Stuttaford writes an advice column, with a female colleague, giving guidance for those with sexual problems. This often goes into extreme anatomical detail and is not for the squeamish, and it is advice which would have been absolutely unprintable, anywhere, when I was a young man. So be glad you live in changed times.

All of this is a formidable achievement in a man who must now be well into his seventies and has been treated for prostate cancer. I used to teach Dr Stuttaford's son thirty-five years ago, and the son must be approaching fifty by now.

Anyway, last week the good doctor was prompted by a recent court case to write his usual lengthy analysis of a condition known as narcissistic personality disorder.

People are said to suffer from a personality disorder if they have a persistent pattern of abnormal behaviour which is not severe enough for them to be classified as psychotic and does not constitute a psychiatric disease. Such individuals may well be outwardly successful in their work.

Having said that, people are not properly described as having a personality disorder if their symptoms are so minor that they do not affect their emotional relationships or their professional life.

Here, just to get you thoroughly worried, are the nine telltale symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Having one or two of these symptoms is not unusual, but those with five or more might be a bit difficult, shall we say, to live with.

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance. The person expects to be recognised as rather special.
  2. The belief that the individual has unique problems.
  3. A need for excessive admiration.
  4. A sense of entitlement which is not justified by their attainments.
  5. The belief that, if only their hitherto unhonoured achievements and ability were recognised, their success would be unlimited.
  6. Reacting to criticism with inappropriate rage.
  7. A lack of empathy with other people's needs.
  8. Arrogance and haughtiness.
  9. Willingness to exploit other people to achieve their goals.

Does all this, perhaps, ring any bells? Hmm? Remind you of writers you might have met? Or read about?

And what, I wonder, is the appropriate form of treatment? On that, Dr Stuttaford is silent.

Lionel is a lady

Lionel Shriver is this year's winner of the Orange prize: it was awarded for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. And winning the prize is how she came to be interviewed in Saturday last's Financial Times.

Unfortunately, the interview doesn't seem to be available online, so I can't give you a link to it. I've noticed this phenomenon once or twice, with other newspaper articles. What it suggests to me is that, even in this age of bullying media magnates, some writers (or interviewers) are still managing to reserve digital rights to themselves. On the other hand, it may just be that I am not very good at finding stuff.

Lionel was born in the US, moved around a bit, and settled in the UK in 1991. She was born Margaret Ann but changed her name at the age of fifteen.

Lionel says that Kevin is her seventh novel -- the eighth if you include one which never got into print. Her previous novels collected good reviews but minimal sales. In the book industry, she says, this process is like acquiring a criminal record.

As for Kevin, nobody liked it much to begin with. In the US, Lionel parted company with one agent over it, and was turned down by 15 or 20 others before she finally got the book into print. In the UK it was rejected by 30 publishers before finally being accepted by Serpent's Tail, one of the smaller London houses.

All in all, Lionel comes across as an eminently sensible woman, with her feet very much on the ground. She says, for example, that the whole literary scene makes her queasy.

I am almost tempted to read her book. But as it is so clearly literary in nature, and as I am not short of other stuff at present, I think I'll pass.

Even if you can't find the FT interview, there is another one available on the Orange prize site. And you can also read her acceptance speech -- but only if you scroll right down to the end of the page.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Kevin Smokler: Bookmark Now

Bookmark Now turns out to be a considerable disappointment. But that is not so much a criticism of the book as a reflection of the fact that I expected it to be something rather different from what it is.

Edited by Kevin Smokler, Bookmark Now is a collection of essays. The subtitle is 'Writing in unreaderly times'; and somehow or other, perhaps through not reading the publicity carefully enough, I got the impression that this would be a body of work about taking advantage of the new technology. I thought there would be quite a lot about writing for the internet, the impact of new book-printing techniques, new approaches to copyright, and so forth.

What we have, in fact, is a collection of essays by people who are mostly not so much new technologists as old-time literary types (even if they are young-ish). They edit literary magazines; they have written critically acclaimed novels (which means that no one bought them); they have won obscure literary prizes; and, yes, they teach creative writing. In short, they are the usual suspects; the kind of people whom I hold responsible for many of the foolish nonsenses which are mistaken for established facts in the world of serious literary criticism. Little wonder, then, that I find myself out of sympathy with most of what they have to say.

If there is anyone among the lot of them who writes anything which might be called down-market commercial fiction (or even non-fiction), then that person escaped my notice, for which I apologise. There doesn't seem to be anyone from crime or romance, for example.

True, there are a few contributors who write about the internet and the new media, notably Douglas Rushkoff, Elizabeth Spiers, and Neil Pollack. But the bulk of the essayists are not the kind of writers whose ideas and opinions I was hoping to read about.

Thus far, of course, this is all the result of my own misapprehension. So what of the book?

It begins with an introduction by the editor, in which he comments on the absence of fresh thinking among both authors and publishers, and expresses the hope that the essays that he has collected will be seen as an invitation to think big. Smokler's publisher describes him, by the way, as 'one of the country's [USA's] leading thinkers on the future of contemporary literature, publishing, and the arts at large.' That being so, perhaps it's a pity that he didn't write a whole book of his own.

The essays are grouped into four sections: Beginnings; The writing life; The now; and The future.

The first essay struck me as being a poor start, and it did not encourage me to read further; but I did. The second is a slight improvement, but my notes say, Where's the beef? And finally, in the fourth essay, by Howard Hunt, we have a good solid piece on the technique of interviewing rock stars; should you ever wish to do so.

You may be wondering, by the way, whether this is the same Howard Hunt who was involved in the Watergate burglary and subsequently wrote (or gave his name to?) some pretty good espionage novels. The answer is no. Unfortunately. The essay would have been a damn sight more interesting if it was.

I'm afraid that it was with the last essay in this first section, Michelle Richmond's 'raw takes on the MFA', that I really began to lose patience.

Degree courses in 'creative writing' are more widespread in the USA than in the UK, though modern UK universities are doing their best to remedy the situation -- for which read 'take full advantage of the gullibility of a seemingly endless supply of mugs'. And once upon a time, potential students could be forgiven for assuming that such a degree course was a worthwhile investment of time and money.

But not, surely, any longer. Anyone who troubles to use Google can find a vast amount of data demonstrating that MFA courses are not a good investment in terms of financial return. Neither could such courses be mistaken, by anyone who knows anything about universities, as a broad-based form of liberal education. They are, in short, an almost complete waste of time and money.

Michelle Richmond tells us that when she embarked on her own MFA course -- a four-year marathon, God help us all -- she began to question her own sanity. As well she might.

The students on Michelle's course, by her own account, seem to have spent much of their time fucking each other's brains out. But, if such is your taste, you don't actually need to go on an expensive degree course. As for the 'workshop' technique -- which is what the MFA colleges use to eliminate the need to actually teach anything -- no one in their right mind could possibly imagine that it will lead anywhere much. Why should you care what a bunch of self-obsessed, over-ambitious, fuzzy-thinking weirdos think about what you have written? An experienced agent might very well have something valuable to tell you. But a fellow student? I really don't think so.

So, asks Michelle in conclusion, 'do you need to go to school to become a writer? Probably not.' And what does Michelle Richmond do for a living now? She teaches writing in San Francisco.

The second group of essays are linked by the heading 'The Writing life'. Several of them struck me, I'm sorry to say, as self-indulgent and of little value. On the whole it seems to me that the authors of these pieces spend too much time talking and writing about writing fiction and not enough time actually doing it. (A failing to which I am not altogether immune myself, of course.)

Neal Pollack is interesting on fan fiction, and he tells some stories about writing online which should give serious pause to anyone contemplating doing the same.

For me, part three of the book, 'The now', contained nothing of note or of value. Which leaves only part four, 'The future'.

Here, at last, are a couple of pieces more or less along the lines of what I had been hoping for. Elizabeth Spiers writes about blogging and traditional print, but she elicited from me not a single pencil note in the margin. That is a considerable disappointment in itself, because the lady has a formidable background.

Douglas Rushkoff proves to be more interesting about the recent past and the present than he is about the future. He tells a story about how the title of one of his books was changed at the last minute, by the publisher, who forgot to inform the trade, or anyone else. The result was that no bookseller or library could ever find it, even if they wanted to order a copy. Oops, as Douglas says. He also discusses the value of distributing free copies of a book, as digital files, over the internet; but that is a topic which has been touched on often elsewhere.

All in all then, as I said at the beginning, this collection of essays is a disappointment. I have the distinct impression that, when Smokler asked them to contribute, the writers represented here readily agreed. Then, as the deadline approached, and passed, they thought to themselves, Dearie me, I really must dash something off for that lovely Kevin or the dear boy will be frightfully upset. And so they did. But I can't really suggest that the result is something that you should buy with your own money. You can find better stuff online for free; and some of it, oddly enough, is written by the very same contributors.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The use and abuse of agents

Those who yearn to be writers spend much time and effort trying to find a literary agent -- someone who will love them and care for them and dry their tears and say There, there; and also, of course, make them rich and famous. Shouldn't be difficult, should it? Given that you're so talented and all.

Well, if you thinking about finding an agent, or are between agents, or are even married to one, it would be a good idea to wander over to Bookangst 101. There you will find a couple of pieces which are essential reading.

The first appeared on 29 June and is entitled 'Misadventures in (mis)representation'. The second piece, 30 June, is entitled 'On choosing an agent'. Both will repay study.

My own comment is that both articles tend to assume that finding an agent is in principle pretty easy. And that if you don't get on with one, you just move to another.

Well, maybe in some elevated circles it works that way. But for most writers, getting an agent even to read something, let alone agree to try to sell it, is a pretty major achievement. Many agents these days are just as picky about unsolicited mss as publishers. In other words, they just won't read the damn things.

Arthur Klebanoff, in his book The Agent, says that agents 'typically get their clients by referral or by soliciting [previously published] authors or celebrities. It is a rare agent who finds his opportunities from the slush pile.'

By 'referral' I think Klebanoff means a recommendation from an editor, or someone in the business. But usually, in order to get anyone in the business to pay attention to your stuff, you have to have an agent. So, er... Hmm.

Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Let's get one thing clear for a start: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a novel. And it's a very nice novel.

Nice, you say? Hmm. When I was a lad, all those years ago, we were not allowed to use the word 'nice'. Nice, our teachers told us, was vague, imprecise, woolly. Worse, it was common, which meant that it was used by the lower classes. Char ladies on their way to work remarked on what nice day it was. 'Did you have a nice time, dearie?' 'Isn't he a nice boy?'

No, 'nice' wouldn't do at all for my mentors. But the fact is that it is a perfectly good word. It means something pleasant; unobjectionable; rewarding. And that describes Marina Lewycka's novel rather well.

I see from the cover of the book that it was shortlisted for this year's Orange prize for fiction. This is a prize for lady authors only, and judging by the shortlist it has a definite literary bias. So, in that case, this is a literary novel. (The author's tastes are also literary -- see the Orange prize interview with her.)

Well, fair enough. If there were more literary novels like this one, I would read more of them; but there aren't, so I don't.

Tractors (as I shall abbreviate it) also won this year's Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, which is why I came to read it. And, without wishing in any way to detract from the book, which is a considerable achievement, I have to say that it is not all that funny. Amusing, certainly; droll; and I did laugh out loud once or twice. But don't read it primarily in search of belly laughs and knockabout farce, because if you do you will be disappointed.

This book has every sign of being a novel which, if not directly autobiographical, certainly draws heavily upon the author's own background. Marina Lewycka was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel at the end of the second world war. She grew up in England and she now teaches at a university. The first-person narrator of Tractors seems to have a directly comparable c.v. What is more, the author's father actually did write a history of tractors, which is what the father in the novel is up to.

While it is common for first novels, particularly those of the literary variety, to draw on personal experiences, this is a practice fraught with danger, as I have commented before. Even if people don't actually sue you, they can all too easily be alienated for ever.

This is true, oddly enough, even in the case of people who don't recognise themselves in what you have written; they can still take a dim view, and Ben Travers, the playwright, had a story to illustrate this.

Once, and once only, Travers put a character in one of his plays who was based on a real person: as his model he used a retired Colonel (name of Smith) who lived nearby.

After the play had been running for a while, Travers was dismayed to be stopped in the street by this very same Colonel Smith. 'Now look here, Travers,' said the Colonel, harrumphing fiercely, 'I've been to see this play of yours, and I must say I think you've gone too far. That character of yours, Major Huntington -- anyone can see that it's based on a real person.'

Travers held his breath, expecing a horse-whip to be produced at any moment.

'It's an unmistakable portrait of Brigadier Barnes-Meldrew,' said Colonel Smith. 'And using real people in a play is not the action of a gentleman, Travers. By no means, sir.'

Thus Travers, to his great relief, escaped both a horse-whipping and the libel courts.

My point is, however, that since Marina Lewycka is of Ukrainian origin, and almost certainly has close ties with the Ukrainian community in the UK, one must just hope that her family and friends are still talking to her.

What of the plot? Well, this is a novel about family affairs. It's about sisters who don't get on very well. And fathers who do silly things. And bossy, bottle-blonde, tarty-looking women who waltz in and start taking over.

The married narrator has an older sister, with whom, as I say, she does not see eye to eye; she also has a daughter. Her mother has been dead a couple of years, and her father, at eighty-four, falls in love with a quite unsuitable Ukrainian divorcee who is thirty-six. Who has had breast surgery. Father becomes besotted and plans to remarry. Daughters combine to prevent it. Complications ensue.

I am going to risk life and limb here, but I believe I am justified in saying that there are novels which women will enjoy more than men, and vice versa. And this is a novel principally for female readers.

I believe I am justified in making this generalisation about gender preferences for several reasons, not the least of which is evidence provided by my daughter, who is a psychiatrist. My daughter recently took her two young children, both under five, to a gathering where there were several other couples with children of a similar age.

What happened? Without any prompting from anyone, the little girls got together and started playing with dollies; and the little boys went off and did little-boy things, like climbing trees and throwing stones at policemen.

My daughter was, I think, thoroughly shocked by this display of gender-stereotypical behaviour. Particularly as the children all came from families where the husbands were new men and did the cooking and changed nappies, and the women held down professional jobs.

So, as I say, Tractors will appeal most to female readers. Blokes, I think, will also read it happily enough. But for quite a while they will be saying to themselves, This family stuff is all very well, but when is the story going to start? And, er, the family stuff is the story.

Potentially, the material on which this book is based is tragic and extremely dark. People who found themselves in refugee camps, and worse, in the second world war, did not have a happy time. Those experiences leave lifelong scars. So Marina was wise to adopt the approach that she has chosen.

And what is that approach exactly? Well, it is not frivolous. She does not try to turn these events into farce. But her writing is informed with a sense of the ridiculous; with an awareness that human beings (yes, even writers and narrators) sometimes do foolish things.

In the course of this novel, the narrator comes to learn certain truths about what happened to her family in the past -- truths which are quite appalling, and horrible. And she doesn't even learn everything. Her sister wisely tells her that some things are best left unknown.

The past is, I think, a major factor in this book. And the awful nature of what happened in the past is fully recognised. But the author also recognises that, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out in his Meditations, 1900 or so years ago, the past cannot hurt us unless we let it. It is the present that we have to deal with.

In her Orange prize interview, Marina tells us that she wrote several earlier novels (unpublished), which were, by her own admission, far too serious, with a Big Message. In the end, however, she seems to have found her true voice.

As I said before, this is a very nice novel, full of good things and with an optimistic ending. Who could reasonably ask for more?