Friday, March 31, 2006

More titbits

Debra Hamel reviews Jeffrey Archer

Oh woe. Debra Hamel has finished her reading of Jeffrey Archer's False Impressions and is not overwhelmed by it. Three stars out of five, but 'the book needed more work. Readers should look elsewhere for their next page-turner.'

Writer wanted (UK Derby area)

Matthew Bell, of Rolls-Royce, tells me that he has the task of putting on a careers fair with a difference. The difference is that this fair is for about 1200 year 6 schoolchildren (10-11 yrs old), and their parents.

The aim is to teach kids the link between learning now and success in later life, while they still have time to change direction and turn their grades around. To capture the kids' imagination the organisers need a 90-minute storyboard, allowing 8-10 local companies to have a frame each in which to enthuse the kids for their profession and get the key message across.

Hence, what is required is someone with the ability to relate to an audience of children, to write the storyboard that will suit the companies, and give a slick, seamless show for the kids. (There will be a compere on hand to fill the gaps and link the frames.)

This, says Matthew, 'is a fantastic opportunity to make a real difference, and take on an interesting new challenge.'

If you think you could help, know someone else who could help, or you would like to know more, please contact Matthew as follows: matthew.bell at rolls-royce.com, or 01332 2 45654.

Michael J Lawrence on how to be a (show-biz) agent

Mike Lawrence was for twenty years the head of his own show-biz agency, Creole Entertainment Management, until ill health caused him to close the business. Prior to that, he worked for RCA Records for 14 years as Head of A&R (the same company and in a similar capacity to Simon Cowell); and at Pye Records he was Head of A&R and Promotions for a further 7 years.

Now he has put all that experience down on paper and has written a book (well, actually a ms) called Waiting in the Wings. It's a how-to book for those sensible people who want to be involved in the world of show business but don't want to to be an actress/singer/dancer/model.

Chapters cover such topics as forming an entertainment company, building an act portfolio, how to obtain clients, contracts, and a lot more.

Now, I have to say that I am 100% in favour of this kind of thing. Too many people retire after a lifetime of experience, and their hard-won knowledge and wisdom just goes to waste. We need more books of this kind, and less -- if you put a gun to my head -- of the fiction.

As we all know full well, Mike could publish this book himself. But he would prefer a regular mainstream publisher. Anyone interested can contact him as follows: micel at micel.wanadoo.co.uk.

V.S. Naipaul puts writers in perspective

According to the BBC, Nobel prize winner Sir V.S. Naipaul has 'lambasted literary greats from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens', describing the latter as 'the worst writer in the world.' Naipaul adds, modestly, that 'England has not appreciated or acknowledged the work I have done.' (Apart from giving him a knighthood, presumably.)

Well, I wouldn't know. I don't read Nobel prize winners very much. I can only say that I once had a colleague who always used to refer to V.S. Naipaul as Mr Nipple. After which I was never able to regard that distinguished writer with the high seriousness which, I am sure, he deserves.

The UK Nibbies

The Nibbies are annual awards made in the UK in order to drum up a few free column inches for the book world in the nation's press, and as such they are tolerably effective. Galleycat kindly lists all of them for you. The one I am happiest to see is the Waterstone's Newcomer of the Year award. It goes to Marina Lewycka for her delightful A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Recommended.

Opening drawers

I opened a drawer yesterday and found it full of books. Worse, some of them were books sent to me some time ago by people who hoped that I would review/mention them. Well, if you're one of those people, kept waiting for a long time, I apologise. I will get to them eventually.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Update on John Barlow's Intoxicated

The publication of John Barlow's novel Intoxicated was noted here on 7 February. Subsequently, however, John sent me a copy of the book, with a not-so-cryptic comment to the effect that I might as well have a copy, since no one else wanted one.

At about the same time, in a comment on Walter Ellis's sad tale about how he got lots of publicity but no sales, John said this: 'Walter, I read your comments and they almost broke my heart. However, since I had a very similar experience to accompany the recent publication of my own book, my heart was already broken.'

And, if that is not enough, on his own blog John writes that 'If your book flops, you’ll know very quickly; just check your infolder, and if it’s still empty seven days after publication, you’ve written a flop.'

From all of which, you will deduce that the public reception of Intoxicated has not made John a happy bunny. And, if he will forgive me for rubbing salt in the wound, the rest of us might benefit from trying to decide what, if anything, went wrong.

Bit of background to begin with.

John Barlow read English at Cambridge, and later got a PhD in Applied Linguistics. He first came to public attention through the Paris Review, which seems to have as high a literary reputation as any journal in the world. And his first book, Eating Mammals (a collection of novellas), was greeted with favourable reviews in such prestigious places as Publishers' Weekly, Booklist, and the Times Lit Supp. All very promising, and the right sort of credentials for a literary novelist.

You also need to know about John's geographical background. He was born in Gomersal, West Yorkshire (England), and Gomersal features as the location for at least one story in Eating Mammals. The Bradford/Leeds/Gomersal area is also the setting for Intoxicated.

Now the details of the novel's publication.

Unusually for an English writer, the first edition of Intoxicated came out in the US, published by Morrow, part of HarperCollins, and therefore a big-time, prestigious imprint. As is often the case with American books, the actual physical object is produced to a higher standard than a typical UK equivalent would be. It's a hardback, on decent paper, handsomely bound. The layout is well designed and has been given a good deal of thought. A considerable sum, several thousand dollars, has been spent on the dustjacket.

As for the actual content, the text, I find myself admiring certain aspects of it very much indeed. Overall, it is a very fine piece of work. I have criticism,s and it certainly isn't perfect, but it is the product of much intelligence and hard work. In fact, when I reached page 349 (out of 353) I noted down that 'this is a very beautiful book'. And I shall have to try, in a minute, to explain both to you and to myself what I meant by that.

On the negative side, I have quite a number of things to say. First, like almost everything else these days, Intoxicated is too long. At a guess, 120,000 words. And in my view it would be far more effective at two-thirds that length. But you can always skip.

And then there's its subject matter. The book is about a Yorkshire family, in the nineteenth century. Yorkshire then made most of its money ('brass') from wool. And Isaac Brookes is a successful mill owner who meets a hunchbacked midget on a train. They go into business together and produce a fizzy, fruity drink from... Well, actually from rhubarb. Rhubarb being a curious vegetable/fruit which grows well in the Yorkshire area. And Rhubarilla, as the drink is called, becomes enormously successful and popular.

Well now. Suppose you were an editor of literary fiction in a New York publishing house, and an Englishman with one respectable publication to his name came to you with a novel set in Yorkshire, in 1869, about a hunchbacked midget who makes a successful fizzy drink, what would you think?

Would you think Wow! This is an absolute winner. Watch out Michael Cunningham; and take a look over your shoulder, Dan Brown? Or... Would you scratch your head, study the Bookscan figures for literary fiction in general, and say to yourself, Well, this is all very fine in principle, nicely written and so forth, but...

And the principal but would be, in my opinion, Who the hell is ever going to read this thing, even if it's available free in a library? As for buying it -- is the average New Yorker, faced with the choice of this or the latest Jackie Collins, going to have much difficulty in settling for Jackie?

The surprising thing to me, and I mean this with no disrespect, is that the book ever got published in the US at all. I would have been faintly surprised to see a US edition even if there had been a UK edition to begin with, accompanied by good reviews. But to publish it first in the US strikes me as an odd decision, even by the standards of literary publishers.

So. If we are to wrestle with the problem, What went wrong?, I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that a novel of this kind is inevitably going to have a very small readership.

John Barlow could reasonably take issue with that, and point to some of the favourable reviews that the book has already received. E.g. 'Intoxication delivers the goods' (Washington Post). But reviews don't necessarily sell books. And the absence of reviews isn't always a handicap. Josephine Cox, mentioned yesterday, is never reviewed in any UK journal that 'counts', but she regularly sells over 100,000 paperback copies of each of her two books in every year.

No, I'm afraid there isn't much mystery. There never was a profitable market for this book. The best that publisher and author could hope for (And they do hope, don't they? Oh yes.) was that the book might be one of those lightning strikes. Another Life of Pi, a book that no one really wanted (except one eccentric publisher, who was willing to take a punt), but which somehow, by the grace of whatever gods may be, took off.

And this one didn't.

My final thoughts on Intoxicated are very personal, and probably of no interest to anyone. But how did I come to find myself feeling that it was very beautiful? And what did I mean by that emotional reaction?

The answer lies in my family background. The characters in Intoxicated are Yorkshire people of the nineteenth century, and they remind me of relatives, long since dead, whom I knew and loved.

My parents were from Yorkshire -- from Bradford, to be precise -- and I suspect that my ancestors could be traced back to Yorkshire for a thousand years. Possibly ten thousand. When I was a boy, therefore, I spent a great deal of time in Yorkshire, staying with a multiplicity of aunts, great aunts, grandparents, and the like. Since I am getting on in years myself and since some of the great aunts and uncles were themselves getting on when I was a boy, it turns out that I actually knew some of the people -- or the kind of people -- that John Barlow is writing about. And I have no doubt whatever that they were the finest people I ever met in my life. They became my role models.

My family were skilled working class. Or not so skilled. They were not bookish people, but they were educated, to a point, and self-educated after that. They had talents: music, and amateur dramatics. They were not at all religious but they were law-abiding, honest, sober, reliable, hard-working, and decent rather than merely 'respectable'. They lived in crowded houses in narrow, dark streets, which were black with industrial soot and fumes. My grandmother could remember the mill girls going to work, so early in the morning that it was still dark, with the wooden clogs on their feet clattering loudly on the cobbled surfaces.

When my great-aunt Ethel became too old to look after herself, and had to go into a home, the man who ran the home remarked that he had never had an old person in his care who had so many visitors. She must, he said, have helped a great many people when she was younger. I don't doubt it.

And I suppose that is why I found Intoxicated so impressive. Despite its faults. It wasn't until about page 300 that I really began to get interested, and that after a good deal of judicious skipping. But if you can stick with the book that far you should find the end rewarding. The portrait of Taffy Thomas, for example, the music-hall performer, is a wonderful achievement. And the book is full of marvellous writing, even if it is, for my taste, over-written.

Oh, and before I forget, I enjoyed the various references to walking sticks which either do, or do not, have a horse's-head handle. I wonder if they came from Woolworth's?

The moral of all this, for writers, is probably not one that they wish to hear. But the moral is this. It can be a very painful and damaging experience to invest enormous time, energy, and emotional capital in a project which, if you are able to look at things objectively, is never likely to succeed. It may be best not to start.

Writers, almost by definition, find rational thought difficult. But surely, they will say, every year sees an example of an unexpected book suddenly rising to fame and fortune. Mine has a chance of doing the same.

Well yes. That's true. Sort of. It's also true that, if you go to Blackpool for the weekend, you may, like young Albert, end up by being eaten by a lion in the zoo. But it's not very likely.

Two other guys who give it away

Galleycat reports that two science-fiction writers who are nominated for the Hugo award have decided to give away electronic copies of their potentially prize-winning books.

John Scalzi and Robert Wilson are handing out rtf versions of their novels to anyone who is eligible to vote. For details see Scalzi's web site.

Not surprisingly, if you're familiar with his views, Cory Doctorow doesn't think they've gone far enough. I agree, and I shall be making my own new novel available in pdf form (the complete text, folks) to anyone who takes the trouble to click on a link. Details tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Another review for Sam Bourne

On 17 March, it was noted here that The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, had received, so far, only one review by a major newspaper. This despite the fact that Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of the Guardian's political correspondent Jonathan Freedland. Furthermore, said review was distinctly sniffy.

Well, now there is another review. It's written by Matilda Lisle, and it appeared in the Observer, which is the Guardian's sister paper (Sundays only).

Sadly, Matilda Lisle didn't like The Righteous Men much either, describing it as 'an overly familiar and overly silly collision of codes, cabals and conspiracies'. She concludes: 'It isn't much of a book,' but adds that it is not the worst of its kind, and Jonathan Freedlan really ought to have put his proper name to it.

Which is odd really, because the Observer tells us that Matilda Lisle is the nom de plume for an Observer staff writer. And this week's Private Eye reveals that Matilda Lisle is actually Alex Clark, assistant literary editor of the Observer (and female, if you're wondering).

Dear, dear me. This is all very distressing, for reasons which were discussed last time, were expanded upon in the comments section, and which need not be further rehearsed here. All of this is not, one feels, entirely appropriate for a book which earned a six-figure advance, and is agented by the famous Mr Jonny Geller, a man of impeccable judgement.

Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs

I am sorry to report that I am unable to join in the general enthusiasm for Jacqueline Winspear and her new sleuth, the eponymous Maisie Dobbs. Indeed I seem to be in a minority of one.

Maisie Dobbs comes covered in honours. It was: one of Publishers' Weekly's Best Mysteries of 2003; a Booksense 76 Top Ten pick (whatever that means); had starred reviews in both Publishers' Weekly and the Library Journal; was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003; was an Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel 2003 (now that I find really difficult to understand); and, also, was an Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel 2003.

Well, you could have fooled me.

The principal character is Maisie, who has set herself up as a private investigator, and she looks into the curious case of the rest home for badly injured ex-servicemen. The book is set mainly in 1929 (for the first 67 pages), and then goes back to the time of the Great War (1914-18), or earlier, before returning to 1929. That flashback is all devoted to backstory, and seems to go on for ever; yet this is being sold to us as a crime novel.

On the positive side, the author has spent a great deal of time researching the background, and has planned her novel carefully. But the overall tone of the book is quite incredibly old-fashioned; I think it would have felt a bit quaint even if published in 1929. As for the characters -- well, to my way of thinking they're pure cardboard and stereotype. The good guys, and gals, are incredibly noble and self-sacrificing, and the villain doesn't quite twirl his mustachios, but very nearly. I found the characters' motivation questionable and their mode of conversation unrealistic. And for my taste there is far too much Cockney dialogue with lots of apostrophes. (I 'ope 'e 'asn't 'alf-inched that 'ammer, Miss. Lawks a mussy!)

No, no. This really will not do. Not for me, at any rate. The only truly interesting feature that I can find occurs when Maisie is following a woman and takes careful note of her posture. By copying that posture herself, she gains an insight into the emotion which the woman might be feeling. Maisie does the same thing with other people whom she is following or observing. Now that, I grant you, is an original thought. But I can't recommend that you wade through 292 pages, just for the one insight.

Though presented to us as a crime novel, Maisie Dobbs hardly qualifies as such. It is at least as much a romance (in this case a story of lost love) or a family saga. It reminds me of those Josephine Cox books about feisty working-class girls struggling to make their way through life against colossal odds. Only it's not as good.

And how, I wonder, did this book come to be published in the UK by John Murray? JM is an old-established firm which once published Byron; and a firm which, though no longer independent, still has something of a reputation for literary quality. The answer to that question may perhaps be found on the author's web site, where it is revealed that she once worked in 'general and academic publishing' in the UK. It never hurts to know a few people.

There are two more in the Maisie Dobbs series: Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies. But personally I shan't bother.

More MNW

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Macmillan New Writing initiative is generating lots of comment. Ian Hocking has his say on his blog, and Michael Fuchs, one of the MNW first six, joins in. As he also does in a comment on my own review of Michael Barnard's book.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More short bits

Child prodigy strikes again

An anonymous commenter has been perusing PRWeb and has found yet another press release about the eight-year-old alleged wunderkind Adora Svitak. (I see that in earlier mentions I mistyped her surname as Sitvak. Though she seems to operate mainly under the one name Adora; just like Madonna.)

I really don't recommend that you read this stuff. It's probably bad for your blood pressure and/or digestion. But there it is.

The 50 least influential...

Following the the Observer's recent list of the 50 (allegedly) most influential people in UK publishing, Buzzwords has invited nominations for a list of the 50 least influential people in publishing -- not necessarily British. (Link from Bookslut.)

Well, you may or may not be surprised to hear the that GOB has been nominated. And it's all true, every word. I am deeply honoured.

On the same list, by the way, there are nominations from another Mike Allen, who is not me. But the name Michael Allen is a very common one, as you can find out from Squidoo. One other Michael Allen is the President of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. No, I didn't know there was one either.

Booker injustice?

Over at Campaign for the American Reader, Marshall Zeringue is inviting readers to nominate the book which should have won the Booker and didn't. Or did win it, and never should have. And all like that.

Not a matter on which I am equipped to comment.

New Prize

The Mercantile Library has announced a new $10,000 prize for the best first novel by an American. I haven't read the small print, but I get the general feeling that anything published through PublishAmerica or Lulu is probably not eligible.

Walter Ellis

In a comment on my brief reference to Seth Godin, last Friday, Walter Ellis, author of the autobiographical The Beginning of the End, has some understandably bitter things to say about the attitude of UK book retailers. Serialisation, good reviews, a tour, radio interview, and no sales to speak of.

Everyone Who's Anyone et cetera

Gerard Jones has just published the fifth edition of his online directory Everyone Who's Anyone (in the book world, originally). Over the past few years, however, the list has been expanded to include film people and a whole lot more. So now the web site is entitled Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing, Propagandaville and Tinseltown, Too, is a Worthless, Superfluous, Giddy, Giggly, Chickenhearted, Money-Grubbing, Nazi Moron.

More useful than ever, then. And, despite everything, Gerard still has a sense of humour.

The most powerful woman

The Scotsman claims to have identified the most powerful woman in UK publishing. (Link from Booktrade.info.) And she is, unsurprisingly, the gatekeeper on the Richard and Judy TV chat show. Think Oprah UK.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Michael Barnard: Transparent Imprint

Michael Barnard is the man who dreamed up the Macmillan New Writing initiative, and Transparent Imprint tells the story of how he got it off the ground. It is a paperback original, costs £10, and will be published on 7 April 2006. Royalties go to a book-trade charity.

For anyone sufficiently interested in writing and publishing to be reading this blog regularly, Transparent Imprint is an essential read. It's not expensive, and it contains a great deal of useful information -- information of a kind which is not often made available to the public.

If the Macmillan New Writing (MNW) imprint is unfamiliar to you, let me say that it is a new publishing venture, UK-based but open to writers from anywhere, and its function is, as its title suggests, to identify and publish writers of quality who have not previously had a novel published.

For reference, relevant earlier coverage on this blog can be found on the following dates:
3 May 2005
17 May 2005
25 November 2005
10 March 2006 and
16 March 2006

In order to comment sensibly on this book and the story it tells, I think we first need to take a fairly detailed look at the author. Michael Barnard says that he is within a year or two of retirement, so he is presumably in his sixties. He joined the Macmillan group in 1972, and was made a main-board director in 1985. This looks to me like very rapid progress, so he is clearly a successful manager.

Unlike most of those who come to public attention in publishing, Bernard has not had a career in editorial. Quite the reverse. His principal responsibilities have been the group's technical, production, and distribution operations. In other words, he is a specialist in the essential but low-profile and dull side of the business. He is the author of several previous books about printing and publishing technology, and lectures on those subjects at university level.

We also need to consider, briefly, the nature of the Macmillan group. Originally founded in 1843, the firm has grown to be one of the top half dozen in the UK market. It has major divisions dealing with textbooks and educational materials (always remember, children, that it is these boring bits of publishing which actually pay the rent; not the bits that get mentioned in the newspapers); and it has offshoots and branches in most parts of the world. The German firm Holtzbrinck is now the company's owner.

All of this background is highly relevant, because it explains how and why Michael Barnard was able to get MNW started, once he had dreamed it up. Barnard is a hands-on, down to earth manager who has operated at board level for years. He is clearly respected; and so, when he came up with the idea for MNW, the scheme was not dismissed with a sniff, as some hopelessly unrealistic fantasy dreamed up by some starry-eyed fan of profitless literary fiction. What is more, if the MNW imprint fails miserably, it can be closed down painlessly once Barnard has retired. This is an unusual set of circumstances, and largely explains why similar schemes are not (yet) being tried elsewhere.

Here, to begin with, are some of the key points which are made in Transparent Imprint; in no particular order.

  • Like most major trade publishers, Macmillan does not (other than through MNW) consider unsolicited fiction manuscripts sent in by anyone other than a reputable agent.
  • Agents have, understandably, got into the habit of wanting lots of money for their authors. But paying substantial sums of money for a book does not guarantee sales and profit. Neither does the present scheme of things (hit the big-time first time or you're out) lend itself to the more sensible development of talent over a series of books.
  • Accordingly, there is a need for a new approach. The idea of MNW is to find good authors, who are showing signs of being able to grow, and to publish them cheaply but effectively. Those whose reviews, sales, and reader responses justify it, will be invited to transfer to the more orthodox Macmillan imprints for subsequent books.
  • The acceptance rate at MNW has so far averaged out at less than half of one per cent. (In 10 months, about 3,000 mss were received.)
  • Macmillan do not expect MNW to be profitable, in and of itself. Ever. They do, however, anticipate that authors who 'transfer' will prove profitable.
  • MNW is a separate division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd., the top company, and stands alongside Pan Macmillan. This means nothing to the average reader (and not much, it seems, to journalists), but it is vital in terms of Macmillan internal politics and accounting. No one in Pan Macmillan (the general book publishing company in the Macmillan group), would have wanted MNW bleeding away resources as part of their empire; neither would they want to risk career damage if things go badly wrong. This way, none of that happens; which is the main reason why it wasn't kicked into touch.
Transparent Imprint gives a largely chronological account of how the imprint was conceived, approved, and implemented. It goes into considerable detail about matters such as the material in which the books will be bound, where they will be printed, and so forth. This is most unusual in a book about publishing. Most accounts of publishing affairs, even of day-to-day activity, seem to concentrate on famous names rather than on mundane but essential aspects of administration and production.

There are 40 pages dealing with the press reactions to the first news of the imprint (which seems to have leaked out earlier than anyone intended). This is by no means the most gripping 40 pages that I have ever read, but it is worth ploughing through in order to get a feel for the semi-hysterical and perhaps deliberately misleading statements which were at one time appearing in the press. The GOB seems to have been one of the few places where the MNW initiative was welcomed, and my lengthy piece of 3 May 2005 is reproduced in full. The chapter gives a valuable insight into the extreme nervousness, bordering upon panic, which is felt in some areas of the book trade.

There is a great deal more that could be said about the content of the book, but you really ought to read it for yourself, so I don't think I'm going to summarise it here. What I will say is that two of the appendices are worth the price of the book in themselves.

Appendix 1 deals with money matters. Understandably, Barnard states that he cannot go into too much detail for reasons of commercial confidence. Even so, he tells us a great deal more than most publishers ever would.

Without access to the records of particular firms, or a subscription to Bookscan (very expensive), it is hard to get a feel for such matters as the average sale for a first novel from a top publisher. However, from hints dropped here and there, over the years, it is quite clear that many novels nowadays sell less than a thousand copies in the traditional British market. Sometimes a lot less.

This creates a serious problem for publishers. Yes, printing technology has changed, and production costs have reduced markedly. In the 1950s and '60s, a publisher reckoned to need to sell 3,000 copies of a hardback to break even; and fortunately the library market could usually be depended upon to cover the basic investment, if not provide a profit. But those days are long gone, and my guess is that if MNW sales average 500 per book, the management will neither be surprised nor too disappointed. The first six, launched together, should do better than that on the back of the publicity.

Books which get good reviews may justify a later paperback edition. Each book in the first six already carries two ISBNs: one for the hardback, one for the (possible) paperback.

All of the above being the case, the emphasis throughout the creation of MNW was to reduce costs. And in Appendix 1 we get given some tentative figures. Of course, as Barnard points out, and as was noted here on 2 December 2005, you can fiddle with these figures all day. Suffice it to say here that the costs that he quotes -- e.g. £300 for jacket and cover design and artwork rights, and £2,000 for printing one thousand hardback copies -- seem to me to be very, very low. They are figures which could only be achieved by a firm with an enormous amount of business to place, and the ability to place it in any country in the world where the price is right.

However much you tinker with sales estimates and costs, it is clear that Barnard is being realistic when he says that the imprint is not expected to be profitable in itself. It will only be profitable if it throws up talent which can be developed into substantial and regular sellers.

Appendix 3 is a copy of the standard, non-negotiable contract which is offered to all MNW authors. Well, I signed my first contract with a publisher in 1962, and I have signed a good many since. I have also written contracts, with my publisher's hat on. And I am here to say that I find nothing to object to in the MNW terms. There are a couple of points which I would need to have explained, one point where I think the terms are a little mean, and a reference to returns which is not as precise as I would wish. Overall, however, I wouldn't have any hesitation in advising a writer to sign it.

This is not quite the first time that an attempt has been made to arouse interest in new authors. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s there was an imprint known as New Authors Ltd. This was operated by Hutchinson, and it introduced a number of writers, such as Beryl Bainbridge, who went on to become famous. Of the 64 books listed for this imprint by the British Library catalogue, however, most of the authors' names ring no bell whatever.

There is one name which is not mentioned in Transparent Imprint, but which I think must figure large in the collective unconscious of the longer-serving Macmillan staff. It is the name of the creator of the Inspector Morse series, Colin Dexter.

Dexter has been published by Macmillan ever since his first book, Last Bus to Woodstock, in 1975. Initially he was just another crime writer, one of the extensive stable which was run, in those days, by Lord Hardinge. But gradually he grew in popularity; and when ITV started broadcasting two-hour television adaptations of his work, starring John Thaw as Morse, sales really took off.

And the point is this: throughout his career, Dexter has never used a literary agent. He came in through the slush pile and he has stayed with the firm ever since. Macmillan handle all rights business on his behalf.

Whether consciously or not, the MNW imprint is designed to find more of the same: i.e. writers who are talented, prepared to sign over world rights, and, preferably, are unencumbered with the likes of a top agent who is constantly yelling for more, more, more. Such finds would be eminently valuable to the company. And you know what? There are many worse fates than being one of those authors. My guess is that Macmillan, with its extensive contacts worldwide, is going to be just as good at getting a decent deal for a writer as is any agent.

In my view, Macmillan's courage and common sense in launching this initiative are to be saluted.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Short bits

Hotel Chelsea blog

The Chelsea Hotel in New York argues, with some justification, that everyone who's anyone has stayed there at some time or other, and the latest to get a mention on the hotel blog is Alexander Masters, who won the Guardian First Book Award in 2005 for his biography of a homeless man.

At first the Chelsea blogger thought there was no connection between Alexander Masters and the hotel. But he was wrong. The novelist Joan Brady has this to say:
In re Alexander Masters, he is in fact the great nephew of Edgar Lee Masters, who lived at the Chelsea for many years. I am his mother. His father was Dexter Masters, Lee's nephew. That is, he is not unrelated to the hotel at all. Furthermore, all three of us stayed at the Chelsea for over a month in 1970 or 1971.
Which is all perfectly clear, I hope. Though it reminds me somewhat of the statement made by Mary Gordon, the cousin of the nineteenth-century poet Algernon Swinburne, when she described their relationship as follows:

Our mothers (daughters of the third Earl of Ashburnham) were sisters; our fathers, first cousins -- more alike in characters and tastes, and more linked in closest friendship, than many brothers. Added to this, our paternal grandmothers -- two sisters and co-heiresses -- were first cousins to our common maternal grandmother; thus our fathers were also second cousins to their wives before marriage.
Concentrate, concentrate. It is, as I say, all perfectly simple. And it explains a great deal about why Algernon was so peculiar.

The Bookseller Crow

The Bookseller Crow on the hill looks like an enterprising independent bookshop in south-east London. What's more it has a blog. Click on the Bedside Crow. The bookshop owner is, it seems, a gentleman trader from the shires who struggles to make ends meet in sarf London, aided, he reports, by a wife who has three separate jobs. Well quite, quite. One understands.

I'm not sure whether the gentleman trader's wife knows, but he has taken an interest in books which have pictures of girls in knickers on the front. And there are quite a lot of them. I hadn't noticed this trend myself, so perhaps I ought to get out more.

Agents' blogs

I mentioned the other day that I'd forgotten the name of another agent's blog that I was going to recommend. So Carla Nayland kindly wrote and pointed me to one, Pub Rants, by Kristin Nelson. No, that isn't it. Neither is it one of those other blogs by agents that Kristin lists for us. But all are worth a look, especially if you're looking for an agent yourself. And, eventually, I noticed that one of those blogs linked to by Kristin actually mentioned the blog I originally had in mind: Agent 007.

Agent 007 offers a link, among other things, to Seth Godin's advice for non-fiction writers. His first point: 'Book publishing is an organised hobby, not a business. The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous.' I like that. It's a point made here time after time, of course, but Seth Godin is one of the world's top marketing men, and it's nice to have someone who punches with that weight share your opinion.

My view: being an agent is the toughest job in the business.

Short stories

L. Lee Lowe has posted another short story on his blog, Into the Lowlands. Now, whether you think this is terrific, so-so, or bloody awful, the fact is that it's there, some people are aware of it (you and me for starters), and it's one way to do things. If you write a stunner, you can bet that someone will send an email to someone else, and so on.

Bill Walsh writes a novel

Amazon sent me an email which I was about to delete without reading, when I realised that it claimed that I had previously bought a book by Bill Walsh. Have I indeed, I thought. News to me. But when I followed it up I realised that it's true.

Bill Walsh is the author of Lapsing into a Comma, talked about here on 25 March last year. But unfortunately -- or fortunately -- the Comma Bill Walsh is not the same Bill Walsh as the author of Matilda, a book to be published by Penguin Ireland in April 2006. That Bill Walsh is a retired plasterer, whereas the Comma Bill Walsh is the Washington Post copy chief.

So, nice try, Amazon. But next time try checking a few facts.

Things could be worse

Is life treating you badly? Need cheering up? If so, go see the Word Pangs guy. He's got some links which will have you chortling in no time.

I jest, of course. Actually there's some serious stuff here. For those interested in the writing/depression link, for instance, there is a 1994 article from the New York Times which is more than relevant. And there's another link to the Wikipedia entry on writers who committed suicide. This will certainly set you back on your heels somewhat. It did me, anyway. And it doesn't even mention Tom Heggen.

Word Pangs also has some very funny stuff as well. You will be pleased to hear.

Welsh wizardry

The Western Mail gets excited this a.m. (Link from Booktrade.info.) Seems there's this small Welsh publisher, Crown House Publishing, who published a book by Janey Lee Grace, a presenter on BBC Radio 2. Title: Imperfectly Natural Woman. Subject: tips on living a green and holistic lifestyle.

Initial print run was 10,000. It came out in January, and no one took much notice. But then Janey mentioned it on the radio and it took off. Currently it is no. 2 in sales on Amazon.co.uk. The first 10,000 are gone and the firm is reprinting.

Hmm. Maybe steam radio is still pretty effective.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

More about Senator McCarthy

In my post about Clancy Sigal, I referred to Senator Joseph McCarthy and 'his allegedly anti-Communist witch hunt in the US of the 1940s and 1950s.' In response, Archer wrote in and asked whether this was 'the sort of subtle British irony that fools us Yanks.'

Well, no. Actually I meant what I said. But I clearly didn't express myself very well. I tried to cram far more meaning into that phrase 'allegedly anti-Communist' than it will comfortably accommodate. My apologies for that, and I will do my best to explain.

First a bit of background. Those who know absolutely nothing about Senator McCarthy might like to take a look at the Wikipedia entry. Better still, read an excerpt from Richard Rovere's classic study of the man. Actually, this latter is not particularly easy to read online, because it appears to have been reproduced without paragraphs, but it won't take long to get the gist.

McCarthy was an undistinguished US Senator who discovered, in 1950, that by making speeches attacking 'Communists' he could attract huge amounts of public attention. So from 1950 until his death in 1957, McCarthy proceeded to ruin the lives of a substantial number of people who just happened, at one time or another, to have been members of, or supporters of, the Communist Party in America.

McCarthy, says, Rovere, 'walked with a heavy tread over large parts of the Constitution of the United States, and he cloaked his own gross figure in the sovereignty it asserts and the powers it distributes. He usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him. It struck him often. He held two Presidents captive -- or as nearly captive as any Presidents of the United States have ever been held.'

McCarthy, in short, was one of the nastiest lumps of dogshit ever to rise to the top in a western democracy -- which is saying a great deal. He was a self-serving demagogue, with self-serving being the key part of that description. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether he ever knew the first thing about Communism. The idea that Joe had the intellectual capacity to understand the finer points of dialectical materialism, for example, is too silly to contemplate for more than half a second.

In respect of this man, I have two points to make, and, as stated above, I was trying to build them into my earlier comment.

First, even at the time when McCarthy was riding high, it must surely have been obvious that the main purpose of his activities was not to eliminate 'Communist spies', but to enhance the name, power, and glory of Senator McCarthy himself. He was looking for a bandwagon which would take him to a position of power, and he found it. But it might have been something else entirely. I suspect that the anti-Communist aspect of McCarthy's activities came about more or less by accident. If he had discovered that he could gain power over people by attacking the price of budgerigar seed, he would have made a career out of that instead.

The second point I want to make is that McCarthy did enormous damage to America, both internally and externally. For a start, it is utterly absurd that any American should be held to be 'un-American' for exercising the right to hold a particular set of political views (always provided, of course, that they stay within the law). This did not go unnoticed in Europe and elsewhere.

Furthermore, I would draw your attention to the comment which led to Richard Condon's famous novel The Manchurian Candidate. Condon said that the novel grew out of a remark he once heard a newsman make, to the effect that the loud-mouthed Senator Joseph McCarthy couldnĂ‚’t have done more harm to the country if he had he been a dedicated Communist agent himself.

Condon built a book around that. He described a moronic Senator who rose to power on vague claims about 'Communists in the State Department', and whose wife actually was a Soviet agent. And, in so doing, Condon turned McCarthy into a buffoon. Which is too kind by half.

Now I won't go so far as to say that I actually believe that McCarthy was a Soviet agent (though stranger things certainly happened in that era). But I endorse the view that the damage he did was far more extensive than that of any Soviet agent known to me.

However, as I said at the beginning, Archer has a point. And on reflection it is probably impossible to build into one sentence the burden of what I had in mind when I used the phrase 'allegedly anti-Communist'.

But, were I to try, I might, perhaps, refer to McCarthy's 'nominally anti-Communist activities, which were primarily intended to increase the power and influence of McCarthy himself, and which in fact did more damage to America's interests, and to America's good name, than any Communist agent ever did.'

I wonder if m'learned friend Archer would accept that. Archer, you see, has a blog of his own, called LawyerWorldLand. How could I have missed it?

Oh, the joys of the writer's life

Well, we don't wanna spread too much doom and gloom, do we, but I thought you ought to know that Dr Ian Hocking used his own blog to take up the question of depression among writers which was raised here last week. The 'Dr' bit, he claims, is not directly relevant to clinical psychology, but since he is also a writer the connection is close enough to be useful.

At the end of Ian's post I have added a couple of comments about the value of feeling in control of your own fate, and the (severe) disadvantage of feeling that your fate is controlled by other people.

Meanwhile, over at POD-dy Mouth, the Girl has things to say on the same subject: i.e. she notes the never-ending stream of complaints which come from the mouths of those who, by the grace of God, actually do end up getting published; and, by contrast, the relative satisfaction of those who do their own thing.

And Steve Clackson at Sand Storm also records, not altogether humorously, some of the 'helpful' but conflicting comments which are coming his way from potential agents and publishers.

Oh, and just in case you thought that, since you are a natural-born genius and a future Nobel prize winner, and therefore above all the mundane matters which affect other writers, you might like to take a peek at the Raw Story's excerpt from the New York Times (link from Booktrade.info.)

The NYT story relates that it is getting harder and harder to sell literary fiction. Often, as many as three quarters of the books shipped get returned to the publisher. Erm -- are we supposed to be surprised?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

While you're waiting

In London, the court case about whether Dan Brown has to pay damages to those other guys is all over bar the wincing and the whingeing. The Judge hopes to make a decision 'before Easter', which means sometime in the next three or four weeks.

Meanwhile, to keep your mind occupied, you might like to nip over to About.com, where you can find all kinds of interesting theories about Leonardo da Vinci and codes and such. And (thanks to Dwayne for the tipoff) there is a whole section of altreligion which explains that Leonardo's symbolism was Hermetic, his preference being Johannite Gnosticism.

Well quite, quite. That's what I always thought. As I sat there reading Dan Brown, and again when I was reading Javier Sierra's The Secret Supper, I found myself murmuring, Don't know what all the fuss is about really. Perfectly obvious, surely? Hermetic symbolism with a preference for Johannite Gnosticism. QED.

Philip K. Dick was a Gnostic, by the way. Not many people know that. Although you might perhaps have guessed if you've seen the movie Blade Runner. And if you want to find a nice easy telling of the story of Philip K. Dick's anamnesis, Robert Crumb has done one. Oh yes.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood: Felaheen

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a writer who has been praised here before, notably for last year's 9tail Fox. Which was relatively accessible, as I believe they say in the publishing business these days.

Accessible, in its extreme form, means that a book can be read by someone whose lips move as the eyes scan the page. But no amount of lip movement is gonna get you through this one. Not on its own. This one requires a certain amount of nous.

Felaheen is one of Grimwood's earlier works, though still his seventh novel, and its subtitle is The Third Arabesk. Thus indicating that it follows Pashazade and Effendi which were the first and second Arabesks respectively.

We are in science-fiction territory here, and, as in all such novels (and perhaps as in all novels, period), the action takes place in a parallel universe in which things as not quite the same as they are here.

Central character is Ashraf Bey, who may or may not be the son of Moncef, Emir of Tunis, who may or may not be close to death, after an assassination attempt. But there are plenty of other characters, including Lady Hana al-Mansur, known as Hani, who is either ten or eleven, no one seems quite sure, and whom I rather took to.

I have to say that this book is seriously weird. I mean, like, seriously weird. I quite enjoyed it, but it sure as hell isn't going to appeal to everyone. Rest assured, however, that Grimwood knows exactly what he is up to. Even if the rest of us are sometimes left scratching our heads.

Details of all Grimwood's output on FantasticFiction, as usual.

Deborah Lawrenson sells again

Booktrade.info carries a press release from Arrow (a paperback imprint of UK Random House) to the effect that they have bought another novel by Deborah Lawrenson, who is described as a 'self-published success'.

Well, yes. She is. But as usual the press release is a little economical with the truth.

The truth was revealed here (not exclusively, I hasten to add) on 29 November 2004. The fact is that Deborah had a perfectly orthodox career, to begin with. She had three books published by Heinemann in the 1990s, but, when it came to the fourth, the publisher decided that 'the book would be difficult to market'. So they dumped her.

Whereupon Deborah published the book herself. (Deborah used, incidentally, the services of Matador; this, as I have remarked before, looks to me like one of the better such UK firms.)

The book's title was The Art of Falling, and it got some good reviews. So good, in fact, that it attracted the attention of Bloomsbury as well as Arrow, and she got offered a contract. Arrow then proceeded to sell 40,000 copies.

So this story is not quite the 'unknown hits big time' that is so beloved of those papers which ever publish anything about books. It's more a case of braindead publisher drops perfectly capable and competent author, who is forced to go her own way for a while until someone else wakes up to the fact that she has talent.

The greatest living British writer?

The Book Magazine provides an opportunity to vote for the person whom you consider to be the greatest living British writer (link from Bookslut).

As usual with such things, the list is a bit of a nonsense. If I've counted right, there are 58 names on it.

Nine of those 58 are names which don't even ring the faintest bell with me. I didn't even know they were writers.

I have read, in the sense of at least dipped into (and often heaved into a far corner of the room), books by 21 of the names.

And there are only five writers listed whose next book I would definitely want to read.

None of which stopped me voting, of course. And I shall certainly complain when the wrong person is declared the winner.

Some other blogs

There are so many other blogs that one can't possibly keep up with them all. However, here are a few which, for one reason or another, I have found worthwhile in recent days.

The Skwib, by Mark Rayner. Particularly his comment about the attempt to trade-mark the term 'super-hero'.

Carla Nayland Historical Fiction. Anyone who quotes extensively from Terry Pratchett is on the side of the angels. Or Angles? She does live in East Anglia, after all.

No rules. Just Write. Is the title of Brenda Coulter's blog, mentioned here before but somehow omitted from the blogroll.

Nimble Books LLC is the successor to various sites operated by W. Frederick Zimmerman, a man once described here as having remarkable energy, and even then I didn't know the half of it.

Marketing for Authors, Kate Allan's only occasional blog, has some interesting case studies.

Miss Snark remains snarky. Which is a very American word, hardly heard over here as yet. But I think we get the drift.

And I'm pretty sure there was another blog by an agent that I meant to mention, but damn if I can remember what it was.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Clancy Sigal: A Woman of Uncertain Character

The subtitle of Clancy Sigal's A Woman of Uncertain Character is: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her Bastard Son.

Should you be in any doubt, it's a memoir/biography, not a novel. Says the publisher, Carroll and Graf (an eminently respectable US firm): 'This memoir is about Clancy Sigal's intense attachment to his fast-talking, redhaired, sexy, unwed mother Jennie, a firebrand union organizer, and his roaring Oedipal rivalry with his mostly absent father Leo who carries a gun to social occasions.' The time: the 1930s and '40s. The place: Chicago. Publication date is Mother's Day 2006 -- or thereabouts; i.e., end of this month.

I wonder how many men have written a biography of their mother. I can't immediately think of any, but Jennie seems to be a thoroughly suitable subject. And our Clancy must have done the job well, because he gets a plug on the book's cover from Studs Terkel -- a man who knows a thing or two about Chicago characters. (If you have never read any of Studs Terkel's oral histories, you should. Masterly.)

Clancy himself writes a better description of his memoir than his publisher has done, at least in my opinion. It contains, he says,


...a lot about gangsters, street violence and the shadowy no-man's land between criminal and legal where my Mom and I lived.

Jennie, my mother, was a single woman on welfare with a disobedient, illegitimate son (me). Because she doesn't give me up for adoption, and because of her street smarts and her flirtations, she's a 'kourveh' (whore) to some in her Jewish world.

She's a union organizer, a dangerous life for a woman, alone, facing down strikebreakers with guns in their hands. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone -- who are in the story -- may be romantic figures today, but to us they were goons pure and simple...

I'm a conflicted boy, identifying with my scrappy, super-male father and struggling against my mother who is the source of my greatest strength.

There do not seem to be plans for a separate UK edition of this book, but I think we are going to hear quite a lot about it in the UK, especially if it gets sent to UK newspapers for review. Why do I think that? Well, because I get the feeling that Clancy Sigal is at least as well known in the UK as he is in the US.

I can't find a single, really authoritative source of online information about him, but I remember his name from thirty or more years ago. Clancy, you see, was one of many American writers, actors, and directors who fell foul of Senator McCarthy and his allegedly anti-Communist witch hunt in the US of the 1940s and 1950s. Many of those harried by McCarthy and his associates just came to England and carried on regardless: Joseph Losey and Carl Foreman being notable examples.

By American standards, McCarthy's activities are ancient history now. Even twenty-five years ago, the American film producer Sheldon Reynolds told me that his wife Andrea had known nothing about McCarthy until he gave her a novel about the man (The Troubled Air, by Irwin Shaw). But the era is not entirely forgotten, as the recent film from George Clooney, Goodnight and Good Luck, demonstrates.

Clancy Sigal seems to have been a fully paid-up member of the Communist Party, and not surprisingly that didn't go down too well in Hollywood. So, like many another talent, he went to England, where socialism was still respectable. He stayed for thirty years, until eventually the English wore him down too.

When Clancy Sigal left England, c. June 1989, to go back to America, he wrote a lengthy piece in the Guardian, explaining his reasons and giving something of a personal history. He had certainly made his mark here.

Not surprisingly, given his background, Clancy had mixed with the left-wing intelligentsia. Unlike most Americans -- and unlike most English writers, for that matter -- Clancy also seems to have lived and worked among the working class. He spent time in the industrial north, where the world is very different from that of the UK tourist brochures.

Clancy also crops up in literary history. He was for a time the lover of Doris Lessing, and they both wrote novels which dealt with their affair. Doris Lessing maintains that she never read Clancy's book, and he, apparently, is not kindly dealt with in The Golden Notebook. But he seems to have played an important part in Lessing's personal development. (For an account of which, see the 1982 interview with her by the British writer Lesley Hazleton.)

There are many other sides to Clancy Sigal. He was involved, for instance, in a mental health project called the Philadelphia Association. This was a charity (in legal terms) 'concerned with the understanding and relief of mental suffering.' The most famous collaborator in the Philadelphia Association was R.D. Laing, a man whom, perhaps out of sheer ignorance, I have always regarded as both mad himself and also bad. At one time he was certainly a huge name in certain circles, and Clancy Sigal was heavily involved with him.

Whether I'm right or wrong about Laing being a bad influence, it is a matter of record that he suffered from both alcoholism and clinical depression. And Clancy Sigal subsequently wrote a novel, Zone of the Interior, in which a thinly disguised Laing features. Clancy has written about this book quite recently, again in the Guardian.

The 2005 Guardian article gives an account of Clancy Sigal's own mental breakdown. And in doing so it reminds me of a television programme that I once saw, decades ago, in which the American psychiatrist Thomas S. Szasz was attacked by four British equivalents.

The Brits argued, basically, that the mentally ill ought to be treated, against their will if necessary, and preferably with drugs. Szasz argued, broadly speaking, that you should leave them alone. In the course of the discussion, one of the Brits described how he had once had a famous colleague who became depressed. But the British psychiatrist didn't immediately put the famous man on antidepressants, as he would have done with any ordinary patient. And when Szasz asked why not, the Brit replied that he didn't think it appropriate for a man of his standing. 'I cannot imagine,' said Szasz dryly, 'a better proof of my contention.'

Clancy Sigal's treatment by Laing and his colleagues seems to have been that handed out to 'ordinary people', and quite contrary to what Laing had promised him.

In recent years, Clancy Sigal has returned to the United States, and has also returned to the craft of writing for the movies. He was the author of the screenplay for the 2002 film Frida, a biography of the artist Frida Kahlo.

One way and another, the man has had what you might call an interesting life. Some would call it rackety. So far as I know he has never written an account of his own life. But let's hope that he does so soon, while he still has the chance, because it would make a fascinating read.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Productivity

A correspondent recently remarked on the fact that I seem to produce quite a lot of words on the blog, and that prompted me to do some calculations -- calculations of a kind that I'd been meaning to do for some time -- about 'productivity'. Although I have my doubts as to whether the number of words written by a writer can sensibly be covered by that term. Some words are more valuable than others.

From a long-term perspective, most of my writing has been done as a spare-time activity, while I was holding down a full-time job. In fact my job was, in a sense, more than full-time. However, I discovered fairly early in life that if you do want to write a book then you just have to keep at it; but if you do keep at it, the thing does get written eventually.

In order to keep track of time spent and words produced, I made it a practice for many years to keep fairly detailed records, and these figures might perhaps be of passing interest to other writers.

The busiest time of my working life was the last fifteen years prior to retirement. And during those years I spent an average of 4.5 hours a week on writing. ('Writing' I defined as researching, planning, drafting, revising, marketing, and publicising.)

This probably doesn't sound like very much. And indeed it isn't. I probably did it, typically, in 3 evening sessions a week. But during those fifteen years I produced several books and plays. I tended to write plays rather than novels because I could finish them quicker and they were not quite so tiring to complete.

On average, and it was very much on average, I found that writing a book took me three hours per thousand words. Roughly one hour to plan each thousand words, one hour to write, and one hour to revise and polish. Marketing and publicising were extra.

Within that average, I once completed a 75,000 word novel in 125 hours, and another novel, about 100,000 words in length, took me 600 hours -- largely because my then agent wanted revisions.

After retirement I became, so to speak, a full-time writer (and later writer/publisher). And I continued to keep records.

What I discovered, interestingly enough, is that the amount of time that I devoted to writing did not increase as dramatically as I had thought it would. The average hours worked as a 'full-timer' have been just under 17 per week.

There are several reasons for this. I tend to work in the mornings pretty regularly; but in the afternoons I often go for a walk, or do some shopping. Since I no longer use a central catering facility, simple things such as preparing a meal tend to take far longer. Then, of course, there are numerous little jobs around the house that Mrs GOB finds for me to do.

In any event, I don't think I would really want to spend very much longer on writing and publishing than I do at present.

As for what I produce in those 17 hours a week: well, the sheer volume of words produced has certainly increased since I started the blog, almost exactly two years ago.

The GOB, as you probably realise, is hosted by Blogspot.com, part of Blogger, which is part of Google, and Blogger no longer provides a facility for counting the number of posts and the average words per post -- although it did so at one time.

However, I have done a very rough calculation, and it seems that I write about 20,000 words a month on the GOB. This adds up to somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 words a year. And in the calendar year 2005 I also wrote, in addition to the GOB, some 80,000 to 100,000 words on other projects (including a novel).

All of which begins to look like a surprisingly high total. Something approaching 350,000 words a year. On the other hand, if you do the necessary arithmetic, I think you will find that it still works out at around that 3 hours for 1,000 words figure that I mentioned earlier.

I mention all this for two reasons. First, I sense that many writers are deeply frustrated by the fact that they are not able to do the job on a full-time basis. But if my experience is any guide, fitting some writing into a working week is by no means impossible. And, even on the basis of 4 or 5 hours a week, it is not impossible to work on a long project such as a book.

Secondly, even if you do win the pools, or suddenly get given a contract which is sufficiently valuable to allow you to give up the day job, you may find that the number of hours which is available for writing in a given week does not, somehow, increase in quite the dramatic way that you might have thought.

What you may find is that that slaving over a word-processor, without any kind of human contact, for eight or more hours a day, is a profoundly unsatisfactory way to live your life.

More short pieces

John Barlow

John Barlow, author of Intoxicated, has a blog up with various thoughts on how come, and why, people are selling his new book on ebay.

Buy a Friend a Book Week

It's nearly Buy a Friend a Book Week again. This is the brainchild of Debra Hamel, a smart lady who has written a book which should be read by all feminists and which won't do men any harm either. Details of BAFAB are available on its own web site, and Debra also has a blog which provides a link to her book about Neaira, a courtesan of ancient Greece. As of today, Debra is also reading Jeffrey Archer's latest. There's dedication for you.

Da Vinci column inches

The Da Vinci case is generating acres of copy, little of which is worth reading. But the Guardian has a piece claiming that people who once enthused about the book have now decided that it has become unspeakably vulgar, and more or less deny that they ever admired it.

'Suddenly,' says Viv Groskop, 'it is difficult to find anyone at all who will admit to having enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. This is rather peculiar with 40 million copies purchased worldwide, presumably not all of them by Dan Brown's mum.'

Well, my position is quite clear: it was set out in my post of 17 September 2004. The book was bought for the UK by Transworld, who paid only a modest advance for it, and began to pay attention to it only after it took off in the US. It was published in the UK in March 2003, and I read it about six months later. I found it a perfectly acceptable thriller; not outstanding, but certainly readable. But then, when I found that it was really beginning to sell, I realised that I couldn't remember a damn thing about it.

In my estimation, the most famous novel of our time is not so much vulgar as forgettable. But I'm certainly not embarrassed about having enjoyed it.

Melvyn Bragg on the world's 'best' books

Melvyn to his friends, and Lord Bragg to the rest of us (make sure you tug your forelock when you greet him) is a highly successful (at least in the UK) writer and cultural guru. In yesterday's Sunday Times he gives us his list of the 12 most influential books in the world. Like all such lists, it's a bit of a farce really, but he has some interesting choices. He seems to have limited his list, in the end, to books by British writers and thinkers.

Carmel Morgan: Smaller

Carmel Morgan's new play Smaller is indeed going to go into London. (So many of these 'prior to West End' productions which tour the provinces never get nearer than Brighton.) And I see that the large press advertisements for the play's run at the Lyric Theatre now include the name of June Watson in addition to those of Dawn French and Alison Moyet. And in the same size type; though June still doesn't get to feature in the photograph.

It would be nice to think that the GOB comments about the absence of any credit for June Watson had something to do with that. But it's more likely to have been Watson's agent.

Mind you, mention of June Watson's contribution is still missing from many online references to the play. Try here, for instance. And here. And here. Such is life, eh?

The Old Pals Act and the Grauniad

My reference last week to the Old Pals Act of 1898 (in relation to the Michael Dibdin review of Sam Bourne's new book) elicited from one reader some scholarly elucidation of the more obscure sections of Act. This came in the form of a comment from m'learned friend Iain, to whom I am deeply indebted. Essential reading, this one. It explains a great deal. Go take a look.

And, while we are on the subject of that post, perhaps I should explain my repeated references to the Grauniad newspaper, which another commenter took to be a fit of the dyslexics. In fact the repeated references were not typos but something of a conceit.

Many years ago, the Guardian had a reputation for having an unacceptably high proportion of typographical errors; and this in a time when people still knew about such obscure things as the difference between appraise and apprise. As a result of this failing, the UK satirical magazine Private Eye began to refer to the Guardian as the Grauniad, a practice which is copied by quite a few writers in the UK. In my own case, I almost invariably use it when referring to reports in the Eye, but not otherwise.

Little UK in-joke, you see. Sorry. Should have remembered that we have readers elsewhere.

PRWeb

Over the weekend I discovered that the UK weekly Publishing News gets its online news feed (or most of it) from an outfit called PRWeb. This site appears to carry any press release, from anywhere, on anything. And they then sort the releases by subject, geographical area, and so forth.

So, if you want to see every press release in the entire world on the subject of books, click on the News by Category heading, choose Arts & Entertainment:Books, and away you go.

Only the most obsessive news freak would, I think, want to read everything that's there. But if you need to write a press release yourself, this is the place to go to find examples of how other people do it: the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

Friday, March 17, 2006

More on the Dibdin/Bourne affair

On 13 February, I noted that the Times had gleefully published a book review by Michael Dibdin which had been rejected by the Guardian. Why was the Grauniad unhappy? Because the review was of The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, and Sam Bourne is the pen-name of the Grauniad's political man, Jonathan Freedland. And the review was, shall we say, ungenerous.

Subsequently, the Literary Saloon reminded their readers that I had written about the Freedland/Bourne novel when it was first commissioned. They reminded me about it too, because I had quite forgotten. And it turns out that, in my piece of 16 September 2004, I had complained loudly about the Fleet Street/publishing mafia, and the cosy deals done within that coterie, and had stated my view that, when the book finally did appear, it would not prove to be worth its very substantial advance (reported as the usual six figures).

Well, now the magazine Private Eye has come up with a few more details of what went on in the Grauniad office.
When the Dibdin review arrived, hilariously trashing Freedland's thriller, literary editor Claire Armitstead went to editor Alan Rusbridger and asked what to do about it. Amazingly, Rusbridger then referred the piece to Sam Bourne himself, aka Jonathan Freedland, asking if he wanted it to run. Surprise, surprise, Freedland said no.
The Eye also says that 'still fuming, Freedland has now advised Armitstead that she should never ask Dibdin to write for the Grauniad again.' It also notes that, one month after the publication of The Righteous Men, the Dibdin review remains the only one that the book has received.

How can this be? It is in flagrant violation of the Old Pals Act of 1898 (section 42[d]), which states clearly that any book written by a Fleet Street journalist must automatically be reviewed by every other newspaper in the land. And, preferably, that the author be given a full-page interview as well.

Shome mishtake here, shurely. Perhaps people just don't realise who Sam Bourne is. Perhaps he ought to send a note round.

Short notes

Here are a few bits and pieces which have cropped up in the post, in the press, or online. In no particular order.

Shameless Words

Shameless Words is a newish blog by an apparently anonymous writer, a 37-year-old journalist living in France. Will he be accepted by Macmillan New Writing? Watch this space.

The Daily Bulletin

Jack Saunders writes about depression in writers, and/or in himself, on an unusual site called The Daily Bulletin. Now that I think about it, Jack has turned up here before.

Still going at 92

Publishers Lunch reports that Lilian Jackson Braun, 92, is still going strong with her The Cat Who... mystery series. The Wall Street Journal says (in an article available online only to subscribers) that the 28 titles published since 1966 have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Braun is completing the twenty-ninth title, and 'installment 30 [is] a gleam in her eye.' The Journal also notes that 'the testimonials and sales figures are all the more impressive for an author who's always operated below the radar,' touring very little, and facing 'something of an industry bias' against her traditional, light-hearted approach to the crime-fiction genre.

I've never actually read a Cat Who book. Could never quite steel myself to do it. But lots of people have, apparently. Details of the lady and her books are on Fantastic Fiction, as usual.

Million Writers Award

Jason Sanford, of storySouth magazine, has posted the Notable Stories of 2005 list. This is a list of stories (published online) which have been nominated by readers worldwide. From these, a shortlist of 10 will be drawn up, and readers can then vote for the best. Even allowing for some mutual backscratching, there ought to be something worth reading among that lot.

Times Lit Supp dumbs down?

The People column in the Times reveals that the front cover of today's Times Literary Supplement has a (not very flattering) picture of Chantelle (winner of TV's Big Brother) on the front cover. Does this mean that the august journal is dumbing down? As I have not read the TLS for twenty years I cannot say. But I just thought that regular readers of same ought to be forewarned. Otherwise the shock might prove too much.

Val Landi gets paired off

As from 1 April, Val Landi's A Woman of Cairo will be paired on Amazon.com with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, currently the overall bestselling title after the Da Vinci thingy. I'm not quite sure how this works, or how Mr Landi wangled it, but it sounds impressive.

Murder Slim

Murder Slim is an outfit which deals mainly with music: 'From toe-tapping rockabilly to vicious punk, true alternative to ballsy garage, we've got it all.' But they also run to a literary magazine, Savage Kick, and, if the names Dan Fante, John Fante, Charles Bukowski, L-F Celine, Jim Goad or Jim Thompson mean anything to you, you're in the right place. They also publish Mark SaFranko's novel Hating Olivia, which has attracted quite a number of admirers on the hard-edged side of things.

Tentative conclusion

I don't know about you, but when I survey the above, I begin to think that all writers are a bit weird really. Apart from me, of course. And you. We're just fine.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

MNW: second tranche of three

You may recall a series of posts here about the Macmillan New Writing (MNW) project, the latest of which was on 10 March.

The story so far is that Macmillan UK have set up a new fiction imprint to publish the work of previously unpublished authors, in any genre, with the first six books appearing on 7 April 2006. I am in the process of reviewing (or perhaps overviewing) all six: three were done last week, and three more feature today.

You may also recall that what I have done with these six books is to perform a 40-page test. That is to say, I have read the first 40 pages, or so, of each book, in order to get a flavour of it and to enable me to make some sort of judgement about the skills of the author. The books are listed here in alphabetical order.

At some point, probably next week, I will offer a few general conclusions about the MNW imprint, based on this overview.

Roger Morris: Taking Comfort

Unusually, this novel has a Contents page, and the chapters have both numbers and titles. Actually there are two Contents pages, because there are 55 chapters in a 215-page book.

Short chapters I always think of as a good sign. Yes, I am a simple soul, easily put off by slabs of thick prose (and not all that comfortable with joined-up writing). But titter ye not, madam (copyright Francis Howerd); there are lots of us simple souls out there, and we appreciate the kindness of those who make things made easy for us.

This book is written in the third person, and largely in the present tense, and it is immediately apparent that it is a little... different, shall we say. Not your run-of-the-mill book in any genre.

The principal character is Rob Saunders. He is about to start a new job, an experience which is often worrying to the strongest of us. And on his way to work Rob is a witness as a young woman throws herself in front of a train on the London Underground. Immediately before jumping, she drops a ring file, and Rob picks it up. He finds that, in some mysterious way, this action helps to make him feel safe.

From then on, Rob collects more items relating to death and various disasters, large and small. And the more items he has in his collection, and the more violent or terrible the event with which the object is associated, the 'safer' he feels, psychologically. But it turns out that these actions have not made him safe at all. Rather the reverse.

Hmmm. This is certainly an unusual novel -- at any rate in terms of the kind of novel that I am inclined to read. I would class it as both literary and experimental. Those who are more widely read in such fields than I am may, however, feel that it is neither very literary nor very experimental. It certainly isn't difficult to follow.

The book seems to me to be well structured and well written. And, having sneaked a look at the ending, I can say that if you do stick with the book you will not find it unsatisfactory: the conclusion has logic to it.

Roger Morris has a blog, which he entitled Roger's Plog, since it exists mainly to plug his new book. He also has a web site devoted entirely to Taking Comfort.

I have had more than one look at Roger's Plog over the last few months, and yesterday's entry is more than apposite:

What I should be doing: Visiting local bookshops. Visiting local libraries. Sending out my promotional postcards to everyone I know. Emailing everyone else I know. Spreading the word about my Goldsboro bookshop reading.

What I'm actually doing: Hiding under the bed. Metaphorically, of course. But you know what I mean.

This elicited a wry smile from me, because it is exactly my own position.

It so happens that I have a novel of my own coming out on 5 April. (Don't worry, you will shortly hear so much about it that you will rapidly sicken of same.) And what should I be doing? I should be launching an online marketing drive a la Val Landi. And what am I actually doing? Writing lots of posts on the GOB, and reading other people's books. I believe that this is known technically as displacement activity.

Anyway, Roger is a hip sort of guy, if you will excuse the grotesquely dated term. He understands about blogs (which I do too), and he also understands about making a video clip of himself and posting it online, which I don't.

All in all, this is an interesting book and an interesting author. Taking Comfort is not altogether to my personal taste, but it may reasonably said, without, I hope being too pompous, that it is influenced by, and reflects, the very natural angst among city-dwellers in the twenty-first century.

Suroopa Mukherjee: Across the Mystic Shore

There is a general point about the first six MNW books which I might as well make here as anywhere. The imprint, by definition, will print books of any genre; but even if it was confined to one genre, I always feel that each book published will benefit from a clear label of some sort, to tell the potential reader what kind of a book it is.

On the cover of Across the Mystic Shore, we have no banner, or label. Just the author's name, and the title. Now it so happens that the combination of these two, plus a picture of a foreign-looking riverside scene, tells us more or less what to expect: Indian author, Indian locale. But I can't help feeling that a little extra help would not go amiss.

Suppose we were to lift a phrase from the blurb on the inside flap: 'The entwining lives of four women forced to confront their past'. Something like that, and slap it on the front. Yes, I know, it's the simple-soul approach again. But in my view it never hurts to give the reader a little guidance
.
So to the book itself. The event which kicks off this novel is the arrival of a young boy in an upper-class Bengali household. This, to quote the blurb again, 'triggers a gripping story of love, desire and renunciation.... Central to the story is a dark and shocking secret that manifests itself and demands expiation... [This is] a colourful evocation of past and contemporary Indian settings and family life... An examination of relationships between lovers and family members and a perceptive study of motherhood.'

I don't think there is any need for me to try to paraphrase that blurb, because it says it all quite succinctly. In other words, as I see it, this is a variety of fiction which is aimed at, and will be enjoyed most by, women. And, furthermore, I imagine that author was writing as much for Indian readers as for those in the UK.

As regular readers will know, I try to avoid speaking in terms such as up-market and down-market, preferring instead to think of the continuum of different types of fiction as running horizontally. But, however you view it, Across the Mystic Sea is separated by some distance from Taking Comfort. It's aimed at a different audience entirely.

The book has a very definite old-fashioned feel to it. And again, I say that not as a criticism, but as a description. And the feel derives at least as much from the technique employed as from the subject matter.

What gives the book its distinctive character is, I think, the use of viewpoint. Because here, very unusually in a modern novel, we have the full-blown omniscient viewpoint, used, so far as I can see, throughout.

Modern fiction writers, at any rate if they're professionals, almost invariably use the main-character viewpoint, either in the first or third person. (For a full discussion of viewpoints see my various posts in November 2004, beginning on 4 November.) In the main-character viewpoint, the action is described as seen by one individual, and any internal thoughts given are those of that individual only. If the viewpoint switches to that of another character, the change is normally signified by a chapter break.

In the omniscient viewpoint, however, the author writes as God. The author sees, and describes, everything that happens; and the author may enter the mind of any character, and tell the readers, at any point, what any of these characters are thinking. In this case, Suroopa Mukherjee not only shifts the viewpoint within the same chapter, but within the same paragraph.

This is very definitely a nineteenth-century technique. And, while there is nothing whatever 'wrong' with it, it is relatively unusual these days, and it does give a slightly quaint and old-fashioned feel to the prose. Personally I find it unsettling.

In fact, I would go further than that. To my mind, this technique has the effect of diminishing the characters. It makes them appear a little like children, who are being described by an adult who understands them far better than they understand themselves.

Now, if that is an effect which an author wishes to achieve, so be it. And we have to remember that this book is about a non-Western culture, written by a non-Western author, and aimed, I believe, at least to some extent at a non-Western readership. And, as I remarked with reference to Henry Baum, I am not about to dictate to any author how she should write her book.

Cate Sweeney: Selfish Jean

The President of Harvard got into trouble recently for suggesting that women might differ from men in some respects. Well, perhaps he should get a job in publishing, because in the book world it is certainly obvious that women have different tastes from men. If you doubt that, go ask Mills and Boon, who collect hard data on the readership of their romantic novels (just about the only publisher, incidentally, who does). The last figure that I saw suggested that the readership of Mills and Boon books was 94% female; and the only surprise about that figure is that it wasn't 4% higher.

I mention this because Cate Sweeney's Selfish Jean is definitely a woman's book. One hundred per cent. Written by a woman, aimed at women, will be enjoyed by women. And therefore not much in it, I'm afraid, for me. But then, as Mrs GOB has often remarked, with a sigh, I am not much into relationships and the touchy-feely stuff. Actually that isn't quite true, but I know what she means.

Selfish Jean is a shortish book -- 218 pages, and not many lines to the page. But that, I hasten to add, is in its favour. I am not, on the whole, a fan of damned, thick, square books, as the Duke of Gloucester once referred to them.

The central character is Jeanette, from whom we hear in the first person. She wants a number of things, but a child above all; but she is past her best-by date, and adoption is proving difficult. We also hear about, in the third person, a small boy called Levi, who is 'trapped in the care system', a system which, on the whole, is best avoided. He is not happy.

So, we have wife who doesn't much like her husband any longer, but kind of needs him if they are to have any chance of adopting a child. And then there's Paul the social worker who checks her out for suitability, and whom she kind of fancies. And so on.

Don't be misled, however. Once again I have sneaked a peek at the ending, and I am here to say that this is not your average, predictable feel-good book. It's a cut above that. Or, as I suggested above, it's located on a different part of the continuum. Whether the audience which is likely to be attracted by the publisher's blurb will feel entirely happy about that, I'm not sure.