Friday, April 28, 2006

Oh the bookseller's life is a hard one

Over at the The Bedside Crow, the independent-bookseller blogger has a review of Andrew Laties's book Rebel Bookseller.

This review sets out succinctly some of the problems facing small booksellers these days, and it is a thoroughly entertaining read. But it is often the case, of course, that it is highly entertaining to read about someone else's pain and difficulty. It is when one is experiencing pain and difficulty oneself that it becomes harder to laugh. Or even smile.

Meanwhile, Michael Cader, in yesterday's Publishers Lunch newsletter, continued to pour scorn on the behaviour of the retail side of the UK book trade.

The 'UK market continues to sow its own destruction', he says, quoting by way of an example the Telegraph interview with James Heneage, founder of Ottakar's. Cader adds:
Prominent publishers at a London Book Fair panel insisted they don't extra discount to the Tescos of the world. Heneage says they do, and that has been the undoing of his once-successful and fast-growing chain of stores. "They can undercut because they get better terms from the publishers." (The latest stroke of genius being considered by UK publishers, which you have may heard about, is to destroy their traditional market even more by raising cover prices on new hardcovers. The hope is that this allows traditional stores to offer better fake discounts to naive consumers, which will somehow keep them from realizing that the books are still cheaper elsewhere.
Ah me. And secondly meanwhile, Clive Keeble slaps my wrist again for failing to mention that all books are (normally) available from your friendly local bookseller, whose children can already be recognised by the absence of shoes. Yes, yes, I am guilty as charged, I have failed to do those things which I ought to have done. (Whether I have also done those things which I ought not to have done is not a matter on which I am prepared to comment.) But I have sent Mrs GOB to our local man to buy my birthday present, Clive. Promise.

17th Street from the inside

No, no, don't switch off. I know that you asssociate 17th Street with Kaavya Viswanathan, and I know that you are weary of all that. But I have something new. Honest.

Well, actually John Barlow has something new. He has actually been there -- metaphorically speaking. He has worked with the guys at 17th Street, and got money off them! Which he didn't have to pay back! Now if that isn't worth your time I don't know what is.

John also has a blog, don't forget.

Meanwhile, Reuters report that Kaavya Viswanathan's novel -- good, bad, or indifferent, original or totally pinched -- has been pulled off the shelves by her publisher (link from

The Columbia MFA

It seems that not everyone is happy about the MFA degree in creative writing which is offered by Columbia University in New York.

Mark Slouka, who describes himself as a 'second-generation Columbian' (which presumably means he's an alumnus) is also a professor in the department of English language and literature and the chair of the creative-writing program at the University of Chicago. So he probably knows what he's talking about. And he has absolutely nothing kind to say about the Columbia approach to teaching writing (link from Maud Newton).

Slouka calls the Columbia MFA 'a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity', and refers, for instance, to:
...master’s theses that are routinely passed despite the fact that the level of writing exhibited in them is remedial at best and virtually illiterate at worst, tenure-track hires of close personal friends of the chair who have, quite literally, not a single publication credit to their names and who are hired over candidates with two and three books — resulting in a situation in which students often have more experience and more publications than their instructors, and an institutional culture in which those who have done nothing for 10 or 15 years hire others like themselves in order to make their own lack of accomplishment less visible.

And as if that's not enough, Felicia Sullivan, a graduate of the course, adds her own endorsement of the article:

'A -fucking-MEN. The comic highlight of my year? A letter from Columbia asking me to donate money to the MFA program and its students. Are you kidding me?! I wish I could have gotten some of my money back from some of the incompetent professors who i’ve suffered classes with...

Golly. Crumbs. Who would have guessed that a creative-writing degree would be taught by people who've never done anything much, and be an expensive waste of the students' time? Hard to believe really, isn't it? Although such opinions have been voiced before.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Da Vinci code cracked

Today's Times carries a report to the effect that the written judgement of Mr Justice Peter Smith in the recent Da Vinci plagiarism case contains a secret coded message. And the Guardian has more detail (link from

Well yes. Indeed. One would expect nothing less.

But wait. There is more. My mole in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, sent me an email (coded, of course) this morning, telling me that scientists have recently re-examined a lump of moon rock which is lodged in the Institute's care. What they have found is that if you examine the atomic structure of the rock, under an electron microscope, and then look at it in a mirror, you can see a message placed there by aliens many centuries ago.

When decoded, this message says: The moon is actually made of green cheese. To be precise, Camembert.

Remember: you heard it here first.

The university press and original fiction

In January this year we took note of the establishment of the Mainstay Press, a high-powered and intellectually motivated publishing company. Well, now things are moving.

Visit the Mainstay web site and you will find details of the company's first five books, with one a month to come well into 2007.

Two of the books listed are by Tony Christini, these being the first two volumes in his Homefront trilogy of novels. The two novels are overtly political works of fiction, exploring the 'private and public ramifications of militant U.S. policy.'

Directly relevant to all this is a short essay that Tony Christini has published online, entitled The University Press and Original Fiction. In this essay, he argues that university presses have a duty -- I don't think that's too strong a word -- to publish works of fiction which are notably uncommercial, because of their serious nature and purpose, and which also, ideally, constitute a cultural critique.

'Doesn't it appear to anyone (Tony asks) to be the slightest bit irresponsible for all the university presses combined, several years now into the Iraq War, let alone the prolonged build-up, to not have published even a single (as far as I'm aware) culturally critical novel about the Iraq War?'

Well, ahem, actually, Tony, no. It doesn't seem at all irresponsible to me. Rather the reverse.

As it happens, I ran a university press for a number of years. I can't say that I ever sat down and wrote out, or even thought out, a mission statement for that press (and perhaps that was irresponsible); but if I had, I doubt whether it would have included a duty to publish fiction, of any kind. Furthermore, if I had come to the conclusion that the publication schedule should include fiction, whether serious, culturally critical, or any other kind, I doubt that I could have carried the university decision-making bodies along with me.

The precise aims of any given university press will be determined by the university of which it is a part. But they will normally include, and concentrate upon, the dissemination of research. In the past, such presses might reasonably have been expected to expend more than they brought in, and this would have been regarded as a legitimate call on the university purse. But not, I suspect any more. Certainly not in the UK. Today any press will be expected, I think, to wipe its own nose, if not come up with a handsome contribution to the university's coffers.

And besides. What's all this about 'serious fiction'? All fiction, I would submit, is serious. The people who write it take it seriously -- if they expect it to be any good, and to see the light of day -- even if they are writing what Tony Christini refers to as 'fluff or worse'. And where, I enquire politely, are the intellectual arguments which demonstrate that 'serious fiction', as commonly defined, makes a more valuable contribution to society than 'fluff or worse'? I know of none. Assertions, yes. But proof, no.

No. I dare say that there are some university presses which already publish fiction (Oxford, I believe, is one). But personally I think that this argument for university presses to get into the fiction business on any scale is a non-starter. And while it might have been arguable thirty or forty years ago, times have surely changed. Today, even the most 'serious' stuff -- of minority interest -- can be put before the public at minimum cost. By the author himself if necessary. And, as someone who has seen the sales figures for both a good many university press books and some self-published ones, I can tell you that a self-published book stands just as much chance in the marketplace as one from a university press -- despite the inherent 'prestige' of the latter. This is, admittedly a pretty slim chance; but it's no less promising.

Anyway, you'll just have to read Tony Christini's article yourself and see what you think. But if you're the author of a piece of 'serious' fiction, I wouldn't hold your breath in the hope that university presses are shortly going to offer you a contract..

Richard Rathwell: Red the Nile, Blue the Hills

Every so often I pick up a novel, or get sent one, and read it, and then I find that it's part of a sort of movement. Thus it was that I came to hear about the Underground Literary Alliance, for instance (through reading, as I recall, Noah Cicero's Burning Babies -- though Noah, I think, has since parted from the ULA).

And now it's happened again. I have been reading Richard Rathwell's Red the Nile, Blue the Hills -- fairly painlessly, on the whole -- and now that I come to look him up, I find that he's part of a considerable gang of like thinkers. (Although, in the course of time, like thinkers tend to discover a few differences in their thinking, fall out, and go their separate ways. E.g. Noah, mentioned above. And see, for instance, this account of a little ding-dong at the Friday Project; found for me by a commenter on the Scott Pack relocation story.)

Richard Rathwell is a Canadian novelist and poet. He has been around for some time and has usually been involved in controversy. His high school teachers found him 'oppositional', and he was named in the Canadian Parliament as a dangerous person in relation to the Gastown riots of 1971. He has taught literature in various countries and has worked as a consultant/adviser to the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the British Foreign Office. He has had lots of experience in aid organisations and has worked in many African countries; and this latter experience is, I think, the key to his novel Red the Nile, Blue the Hills.

Richard has written four novels and various chapbooks, all of which are published by Blue Orange Publishing. This is a small firm which has also been around for some time and seems to have very definite views on how things should be done.

All of that I discovered after reading Red the Nile, Blue the Hills. So, what do we have?

Well, I find myself stumped for a quick summary of this novel, though I found it interesting enough to read. The principal character is Hank Rousseau, who works for a large international children's charity. As the title suggests, most of the action takes place in Egypt, though there are excursions to Albania and Ireland.

The plot? Hmm. Well, Hank becomes involved in troubleshooting, in particular investigating the death/disappearance of various of his organisation's staff. There's a lot of organisational infighting; huge amounts of local colour. And some violence. A lot of travel. And confusion. And if that all sounds a bit vague and confused, then that's because that's the way the novel left me. And maybe that's the point, because Blue Orange evolved from the Blue Apple Group of international surrealists, which operated in Ireland in the late 1970s and 1980s. So perhaps total clarity is not the desired end.

The author's brother, acting as publicist, described the book, in an email to me, as an adventure story set in an exotic land, and as a comic book. Well, I wouldn't disagree with that; though it's not a traditional sort of Wilbur Smith adventure story; and it is perhaps not so much comic, in the ho ho ho sense, as satirical. I take it to be an expose and critique, if you will, of the mysterious and largely self-serving ways in which large multi-national aid agencies actually work.

Hank, the leading character, is also confused in places. At one point he finds himself in Ireland, without quite knowing how he got there. In that respect, this book reminds me of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare. And believe me, it took some delving into the old memory to remember the correct title and author of that one. But the Nightmare itself I remember all right, because it was quite a frightening account of a man trapped in his dreams: unable to tell the difference between reality and nightmare. That book was also set in Egypt.

One thing I can tell you about Red the Nile, Blue the Hills is that it is exceptionally well written in places. Chapter one, after a prologue, offers a description of the North African wind which contrives to tell you an extraordinary amount about Egypt, its people, customs, and tastes, and also introduces Hank Rousseau of the World Relief Agency. It is the kind of prose which I can only describe as information-dense. Impressive, if not altogether reader-friendly. But then you'll surely have gathered by now that Richard Rathwell is an unusual kind of writer.

To whom would this book appeal? Well, it would, I suspect, appeal to any westerner who has lived and worked in Egypt. Anyone who has worked in a big, bureaucratic, international aid agency. Expats generally. And anyone with a taste for eccentric fiction: this is a strange, complex, deep novel.

And how, you must be wondering, can you buy a copy? Answer, go to

If you would like to get a taster of Richard Rathwell's work, try Almost Every Time I was Detained: it's on his blog, 21 February 2006. But you'll have to go into the archives and scroll down, because I can't get a direct link to work.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Essential -- repeat, essential -- reading

I don't often come across something on the web which I regard as truly essential reading, but here's one for today.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably (a) a writer, (b) a publisher/agent, or (c) a very keen reader. If you're in any of those categories, take a look at this account of profit and loss in publishing, written by one Anna Louise (the link was from I shall be surprised if you don't learn something useful.

The author works for Tor Books in the US, and she gives an extremely useful account of how firms figure out whether they are going to make, or have made, any money on a given book. Of course every firm will do a calculation of this kind somewhere along the line, but now that computers are commonplace the calculations have become not only useful but normally (I gather) compulsory. In the fairly recent past, editors just used to say, Yes, I think that will sell, and buy it. Now they have to produce some figures (even if they're no more than guesses at first), pump them into an Excel spreadsheet, and convince a committee. Times change, eh?

I'm going to leave the detailed commenting on this essay to other people. And plenty of them have commented. But your eyebrows will rise here and there I think. Note, for instance, what she says about discounts, and compare that with the formal position under Robinson-Patman. And note what she says about mass-market paperbacks: 'The average mass market paperback -- average -- sells one in three copies.' There's a lot more.

I can only repeat what I've said here before, namely that, to a young writer, this kind of information is worth its weight in --well, probably gold literally, since paper doesn't weigh a great deal. And when I was young it was unimaginable that you would ever find such an insight anywhere. Even if your father was a publisher, he wouldn't have had this kind of information to hand over to you. In those days firms simply didn't have the computing equipment to produce such figures. It was all done by guess and by God.

It must have taken Anna Louise a hell of a lot of time and effort to produce this piece (and more is promised), so say a prayer for her the next time you're in church, or wherever. This stuff is valuable, and she gives it away. No, I don't know why, either. Just be grateful.

The Times on book issues

Yesterday's issue of the UK Times had three articles which were of interest from a book point of view.

First, there was an article by Libby Purves, pointing out that many arts organisations depend on the free labour of young people who are dumb enough to think that, by working for nothing in some lowly capacity, they will find out how a particular form of art business works, meet useful people, get a foot on the ladder, et cetera. The whole naive thing.

Libby doesn't rate their chances very highly. Furthermore, she points out, this arrangement creates an uneven playing field. Those young people whose parents can afford to support them for a year or two while they work for nothing, or next to nothing, get to hang in there, while the truly poor really can't survive. Thus some true talent is lost to the industry, and only the well-heeled talent (or a proportion of it) ever graduates into a proper job.

Nowhere, of course, is this better exemplified than in publishing. There we find lots of interns -- usually reading the slush pile. And, of course, there are legions of writers, banging away on the old keyboard for years on end, learning their trade without a penny to show for it, sometimes for decades.

As I said in my book The Truth about Writing, 'Publishing depends, for its continuance, upon a ceaseless flow of mugs, suckers, and assorted halfwits who are prepared to work for a year or more without any serious prospect of remuneration.'

Next, the Times offered a story about John Howard and his book The Key to Chintak, mentioned here on 13 April. As you would expect, the story is built around John's experiment of sending out a washing-machine manual in the guise of a novel, and inviting agents and publishers to read it. That's inevitable, because from the average reader's point of view that's a good story. But there are also plenty of mentions of John's self-published book. John seems to be a dab hand at marketing both himself and his book, and is getting a good response from professionals.

By the way, if you read my earlier reference to John Howard's submission experiment, you will come across Zeno Cosini's very reasonable and, in the circumstances, polite comment, to the effect that agents get sent all kinds of weird stuff in the guise of novels, and some of it is intended to be taken seriously. And he also makes a good case for a standard reply which is friendly.

I accept all that entirely. And if Zeno wasn't a pseudonym I would have written back to tell him so. (Actually I think I can guess his identity, but that's another story.)

Also, if you are looking for a present for a nephew/niece, please note that John Howard is doing a book signing at Waterstone's, 311 Oxford Street (London) at 3 pm on Saturday 29 April. You may have to queue.

Finally, we have the inevitable tale about Waterstone's and various proposed take-overs. The latest features an attempt by the company's founder, Tim Waterstone, to buy back his old company. Authors, apparently, welcome this. But no one else seems to take it seriously.


Kaavya continued

Should you care -- and I'm not at all sure that you should -- Galleycat has more on the Kaavya Viswanathan affair. First, a more or less anonymous but easily unmasked Harvard staff member says that Kaavya nodded off in class. And then the lady herself apologises. Oh, and whole lot more. If you have the patience.

Personally I stick to my original view of 24 February 2006, namely that if you're in a commercial business it makes sense to construct and market books on commercial lines. It makes sense in principle, that is. In this case, those who did the constructing seem to have fucked up. It looks like a case of plain old-fashioned incompetence, compunded by stupidity. With which I have no patience whatever.


Publishers Lunch carried a mention (ad?) for a new book on punctuation for creative writers. A lot of people seem to think highly of it.

Should you need any help with punctuation, the Concise Oxford Dictionary has a section at the back (most people don't even know it's there) which gives a succinct guide to usage. And for a more thorough treatment, I have never found anything to beat Sir Ernest Gowers's 50+-year-old Plain Words (still in print).

And, of course, don't forget Lynne Truss's famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The Guardian (link from offers the opportunity to download a video of Lynne trying to convince schoolkids that they ought to find out where the commas go. Sounds like brick wall and head stuff to me, although at one time I used to do it for a living.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hugh Paxton: Homunculus

Warning: a certain amount of vulgarity, or plain speaking, may be encountered in the course of this review.

The reason for that is as follows: Hugh Paxton’s Homunculus is a book with balls. In fact it’s got the other piece of equipment too; and if you don’t watch out it may sneak around behind you and fuck you up the arse. Which is, as I forewarned, a vulgar way of saying that this book will take you by surprise and shock you. Quite often. Not least because, since the author tells it like it is, the novel is wildly politically incorrect.

Let no one say that I don’t have catholic taste. Hugh Paxton’s first novel is about as different from Michelle Lovric’s The Remedy (discussed last week) as it is possible to imagine, but, like The Remedy, this is also a book that I enjoyed enormously. More to the point, perhaps, I think it could sell very well.

Hugh Paxton is another of the first-time novelists to emerge from the Macmillan New Writing stable. Now in his forties, he is a highly experienced British journalist. He formerly worked out of Tokyo and is now based in Windhoek, Namibia. He is the author of seven non-fiction books and has covered assignments in 70 countries. He has won several BBC awards for his writing. So, Paxton is no beginner or amateur in the business of putting words on paper; and it shows.

At first sight, Homunculus is a fairly typical science fiction/fantasy book, involving a mixture of alchemy, modern technology, and African voodoo. In practice it is far more than that: it is a black comedy which is very funny in places, an extremely violent techno-thriller, and an expose, should you still need one, of the true nature of Africa today.

In the course of a plot which involves the creation of a small army of bio-robots, i.e. homunculi, Homunculus also provides a brutally frank picture of the incompetence and corruption of almost everyone and anyone who operates in Africa, from the politicians to the foreign mercenaries, the UN aid agencies, and the ordinary soldier. Also involved are the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, the members of which turn out to be even more clueless than everybody else.

The time is the present (more or less) and the setting is the civil war in Sierra Leone. As the author explains in an epilogue, many of the characters are either real people or are based on real people. General Butt Naked, for instance, whom you might imagine to be one of Paxton’s wilder feats of imagination, really exists. At least he does, says the author, ‘unless someone has shot him or his overtaxed liver has exploded’.

The plot involves a modern-day alchemist who poses as a Roman Catholic priest (Father Jack), takes over a village in a remote part of Sierra Leone, and proceeds to manufacture homunculi. This, apparently, has been an ambition of alchemists for many centuries. These particular homunculi are manufactured from spare body parts (no shortage of those during a violent civil war), modern technology, and witchcraft (Father Jack has Papa Det lodged in a freezer, which keeps him quiet for most of the time).

Having cracked the business of manufacturing totally obedient automatons, who can be used for any kind of wickedness, Father Jack decides to sell them to the highest bidder. And we go on from there. Naturally, this being Africa, absolutely nothing goes according to plan.

About thirty years ago, I did some research into African civil wars, particularly the chaos in the Congo after independence, for a novel which was later published under the title Counter-Coup (Muller UK and Lorevan USA). What I learnt was that African wars are fought by soldiers who are severely deficient in terms of IQ and education, to the extent that even shooting people with a rifle is often beyond them. It is easier for them to grab the weapon by the barrel and use it as a club. Better still, use a panga, or chopping weapon, and remove your enemies’ hands, feet, head.

Thirty or forty years ago, the average African soldier believed passionately in witchcraft. If the witch doctor cast the right spell, the soldier would be immune to bullets. (Holding a sea shell was believed to have the same effect.) Furthermore, a battle (and more or less any other activity) was believed to be best conducted when totally stoned through the use of various drugs, or when drunk, or both.

Homunculus, which I am quite sure is based on Hugh Paxton’s first-hand journalistic experience, reveals that absolutely nothing has changed. The facts relating to African civil wars are so tragi-comic, and the violence so incredibly bloody, that no work of fiction can out-perform reality. Rape, mutilation and murder are carried out by and on children without anyone thinking it out of the ordinary. Despite all that being documented fact, the author may well be right when he claims that ‘Homunculus is probably the most bizarre work of fiction ever to emerge from the African continent (African presidents’ memoirs and autobiographies excepted).’

What this means is that the book is pretty damn good. Brilliant, in fact.

Homunculus certainly isn’t going to appeal to everybody. But I have a strong suspicion that, if the Macmillan publicists can draw this to the attention of the right audience, the paperback version could really take off. That audience is, I further suspect, likely to be young, male, hip (or whatever the current term is), intelligent, familiar with science fiction and techo-thrillers (everybody is these days), and also inclined to watch Little Britain and the like. The audience is there all right. And it’s big enough to turn Homunculus into MNW’s first big hit. Which it deserves to be.

Stylistically, the book reads as if it was thrown together in a casual sort of way, as if the author was talking to his friends over a few drinks. So after I'd read it once I went back and started it again. As I had guessed, a second reading revealed that the book is put together with a great deal of care and thought (much of which, I dare say, comes as second nature to an experienced journalist). The writing is economical but full of significant detail. It just feels spontaneous.

Of course, Homunculus ain’t perfect. Few first novels are. There are too many viewpoint characters for my taste, which makes the story just a tad difficult to follow at times. And the book could definitely have done with another proof-reader. On the whole though, it's terrific.

Not sure about the cover illustration. It looks like a human sperm that's been subjected to some kind of genetic damage through radiation. Although, come to think of it...

While I was reading this book, the Times carried an article about Zimbabwe, by Jan Raath. Zimbabwe -- as you surely must know if you give even passing attention to the news -- is descending further and further into chaos under the mouth-frothing Mugabe. Inflation is totally out of control, and a loaf of bread currently costs 90,000 Zimbabwe dollars.

And you know what occurs to me? It seems to me that before long, a well-mannered deputation of educated Africans may well descend on Downing Street, knock on the door, and say: ‘Please sir, Mr Blair sir, will you take us back as a colony?’

Because God knows, reverting to colonial status would be a far better option than what many of them have currently got: namely corrupt and brutal incompetence.

Now there’s a politically incorrect thought for you. Bloody true though.

Skint Writer on getting published

Maxine of Petrona has kindly pointed out to me a post on the Skint Writer blog which is entitled How to get published (not).

Skint Writer describes him/herself as living in Wales, and as 'a writer and artist with a little success in the off-line world. Published a poetry and a cookery book, written a few articles -- three unpublished novels in the drawer, loads of short stories hanging about and a few paintings sold.'

Usually I would just post a link to a piece on a writer's blog, but this time I'm going to save you the trouble and quote it in full. Yer tis, as they say in these parts.

Went for a stroll through the back streets of blogdom today, in particular the district tagged as fiction. Deduced that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of unpublished writers wandering those streets blindfolded and without a map - every lost one of them hoping to bump into the elusive dealer/agent so that they can score a book deal. They trip over each other in the dark and beg for directions to the mythical castles of the publishers.

Thing is, getting published has got little to do with talent and is much more about who you know and what school you went to. I had a hard lesson in this about 7 years ago when I paid a few quid to attend an event at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. Hay is a small town on the English edge of Wales where the writing mafia gather once a year to display their latest stash of offerings to adoring punters and more importantly to the media mob who channel the hype into our living rooms through the literary sections of newspapers and television arts reports.

Anyway, I handed over the loot and went into a large tent with about a hundred other strung-out would be authors to hear the lowdown on 'How to get published', delivered by a senior editor from one of the biggest and most heavily guarded fortresses of publishing. On the stage with the editor were two of their new authors whose first novels were just being published. The authors and the editor then engaged in a discussion about the process of getting published.

Author 1 was an old friend of the editor - they'd been to some posh school together. They laughed as they described long evenings in the editor's lounge; the room carpeted with pages from the manuscript as they imbibed wine, reminisced and sorted the book out.

Author 2 was a literary editor for a national broadsheet newspaper.

Whatever the title and stated purpose of the seminar, the real message was stark - "if you're an influential friend of an influential editor and you've written a crap book - don't worry - we can fix it, we can lean on the right people in the right places, we know where the bodies are buried. And if you didn't go to the right school there is a another way to get the key to the castle - get yourself a top job in the literary media; then we can do business, nudge-nudge, wink-wink - you know what I mean."

Dear me. To find such cynicism in one so young is deeply distressing; whereas in someone my age it would be entirely understandable. (I am assuming Skint Writer is young, of course.)

But I tell you what: this kid can write. OK, so the post above could do with a polish. But as a piece of reportage it ain't at all bad. And the ability to string the words together is... well, let's say that it's one third of the battle.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Some things from the weekend

Bloody Blogger

Blogger has been completely insane for most of today, refusing to post stuff at all until 8 pm UK time, and then posting about eight copies of Excerpt 16 -- which, enthusiastic for it though you no doubt are, is a bit excessive. However, at last, here are a few things which should not be overlooked.

Link for Kelly Link

Kelly Link is an extremely talented science-fiction/fantasy writer who has won many awards in that field, such as the Nebula, Tiptree, and World Fantasy Awards. Eleven of her stories were included in Kelly's first collection, a book called Stranger Things Happen (which Mrs GOB is buying me for my birthday). And now, folks, you can, if you wish read this stuff online; in more than one format.

There are other books of Kelly's available too. And thanks to Viktor Janis for pointing this out.

Agents to avoid

I assume that anyone smart enough to be reading this blog is smart enough to know that there are agents and agents, and that some of them are to be avoided. But, just in case you need reminding, take note of Writer Beware's list of the 20 worst agents around. (Link from Maud Newton.)

Madness in the UK

The Sunday Telegraph reports that 85 UK universities now offer postgraduate creative-writing courses. Writing is reported to have a 'glamorous new image'. Hmm.

The link to this story came from the Literary Saloon, which asks, in passing, what could be more depressing. Offhand, I can't think of anything. Not in the book world, anyway.

Weird, bizarre and unusual

Weird, Bizarre and Unusual, aka, is the name of a web site operated by Andrew J. Hewett. I'm not quite sure where this one 1s going to or coming from but I sense that there may be a book in it somewhere, somewhen.


Back in February I reported on the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, a very bright young woman who was reported to be working with a book packager and an agent to produce a commercially viable product. I was generally in favour of the idea, though commenter Jeremy Snippet wasn't.

Well, the book came out, and was the predicted success -- 32nd on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list this week. However, the Harvard Crimson has just published an article alleging that several passages in the Viswanathan book are very similar to passages in another novel published in 2001. Oops.

So far it's no comment from everyone on the Viswanathan side. Thanks to Landjimk for the tip-off.

Gerard Jones on the wireless thingy

Gerard Jones, author of the world-famous Ginny Good, is interviewed by Denis Johnson on MobyLives radio. Go to MobyLives and click on the MobyLives Radio logo for 22 April 2006, and with a bit of luck an MP3 player will open up automatically and (provided you have your speakers turned on) start to play.

Gerard tells me that in this interview he sounds giddy and senile, but then, he says, 'I am giddy and senile.' Nah. No such thing. Actually he does very well and has some valuable insights to offer. It's a bit of a fag getting the MP3 thing to operate, but well worth it. Gerard is a one-off and an inspiration to us all.

It may be gone by the time you read this but...

You may remember that very old, and very silly, joke told by Francis Howerd.

Man goes into a doctor's waiting room, and the only other person there is a gloomy old lady. When her name is called, the old lady stands up (with difficulty), seizes her stick, and hobbles painfully into the doctor's surgery. Three minutes later, she comes out, cheerful as you like, minus stick, and walks out like a teenager.

When your man gets in to see the doctor he says to him, 'By golly doctor, you did an amazing piece of work on that old lady. She could hardly walk when she went in, and when she came in she was skipping like a lamb. How did you manage that?'

'Oh,' said doctor, 'it was quite easy really. When she got up this morning, the silly old bat put two legs in one knicker.'

My grandmother found that story really amusing. But in order to find it funny these days you have to have a good working knowledge of the kind of underwear that was favoured by old ladies of fifty years ago. Hint: they did not wear thongs.

Anyway, I was reminded of all that by a right little uproar which I got to hear about over the weekend -- one which involved large numbers of people getting their knickers in such a twist that lower limbs were threatened with gangrene on an international basis (tipoff from Clive Keeble).

It seems that there exists in this world a Star Wars fan who has written a 'fanfic' novel called Another Hope. Not only has she written it, but she has arranged for it to be published in paperback by Wordtech Communications.

The publication date given on is July 2005; if that is correct, then the world has been slow to notice it. But, as of last week, someone did, and since then there has been a flurry of interest/excitement, leading to 20-odd 'reviews' on Amazon, most of which give the book one star and express horror and dismay that the author has been dumb enough to breach Star Wars copyright in this bare-faced way. More to the point, perhaps, commenters worry that this incident might lead to an all-out war on fanfic in general.

Well, fanfic is a complicated field, too big to go into today. Basically, if you've never heard of it, fanfic is fiction written by fervent admirers of a book, TV show, or film, making use of well established characters, such as Harry Potter, the Star Trek team, et cetera, and involving in them in all sorts of new adventures and love affairs dreamed up by the fan in question. If you want to explore the subject, you might start with the Wikepedia article, particularly section 4 on legal issues.

One interesting aspect of this affair is that the Amazon page of this almost unknown (until recently) novel offers 21 used and new copies at less than Amazon price. The figure 21 is, I would guess, higher than the total number of books sold so far, so this leads some bricks-and-mortar booksellers to suspect that the 'booksellers' who are offering these cut-price used copies are just programming computers to go through the Amazon files and offer stuff at cut-rate prices (see last Wednesday's discussion of 'fulfilment services'). And, not surprisingly, the knickers of those orthodox booksellers are definitely creased as well.

I'm not sure if it's a coincidence, but if you Google "Lori Jareo" you will find that many of the links come up with 'page not available'. And the same may be true of the links given in this post by the time you read it.

Later -- Galleycat explains some of the background and confirms that Lori Jareo is being cooked over a slow fire by the George Lucas legal team.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Discount dog-fights

One big difference between the US and UK book trades is in the area of the discounts which are offered by publishers to firms which buy books from them.

In the US (as I understand it), publishers are obliged by law to offer the same discounts to all purchasers (Robinson-Patman Act). There is more than one view as to whether this legislation is binding in all instances (see the US Independent Book Publishers Association advice to their members.) And Eric de Bellaigue, in his book British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, says that while Robinson-Patman may prohibit discriminatory discounts in theory, in practice it merely discourages them.

Nevertheless, the general position in the US is that a small independent bookseller gets to buy books from a publisher at the same rate as a huge chain. Penguin famously lost a case on this issue, brought against them by the American Booksellers Association, and in 1997 had to pay out $25 million as a result.

In the UK, none of that holds. Discounts seem to differ wildly according to whether the buyer is a mammoth supermarket or a mom-and-pop store out in the sticks. Negotiations can be complex.

Not everyone is happy about this situation. See, for example, the discussion at the end of March on the Guardian Unlimited's Culture Vulture blog. Which includes, incidentally, a trenchant comment from our old friend Clive Keeble.

And now it's not just the little guys who are complaining about the discount situation. Now we have Bertrams, one of the two biggest wholesalers in the UK (Gardners is the other) lodging a formal complaint with the Office of Fair Trading, no less. You can read the story in the Eastern Daily Press (link from And there is more in Publishing News, with talk of 'possible collusion between publishers'. Sounds really sinister, doesn't it?

It's a complicated story, but basically Bertrams feel that publishers are trying to push their noses into things which are essentially none of their business. And they're all chasing the same pound.

Moral: there are dog-fights at every level in what was once a gentlemanly business. Unless you enjoy dog-fights, take up knitting instead.

Bibliophile Bullpen

There's a very unusual, highly professional, and exceptionally interesting blog called Bibliophile Bullpen. Go take a look. I am not smart enough to figure out immediately who they are or where they come from, so to speak, but no doubt you will catch on immediately.

(Re the smarts: as someone said to me recently, 'I've reached the stage where I go into a room full of familiar faces, and the only name I can remember is Alzheimer's.')

The chief perpetrators of Bibliophile Bullpen appear to be J. Godsey, who is a bit coy about details: profile shows a female-looking outline. A spy told me that her name is Joyce. And Lynn DeWeese-Parkinson: who's a he; ex-lawyer.

Anyway, whoever and whatever, let no one doubt that it takes a hell of a lot of time and effort to put together a blog like this. Come to that, it takes a lot of time to do it justice as a reader. But it doesn't take long to figure out that there is some seriously valuable stuff here.

By the way, J.Godsey also urges us all to enter the Booklympics. This involves hurling books around. Hey, someone should tell Stephen King. If you remember, he said that his first reaction, on reading Jonathan Franzen's The Connections, was to heave it into a far corner of the room and then piss on it. (So vulgar.)

Irish for beginners

Roger Boylan is a writer who has a number of books to his credit, and he maintains a web site to tell the world about them.

The web site, Roger says, is maintained from Tokyo on an on-again, off-again basis. Because he lives in Texas, not Tokyo. (Look, I don't make this stuff up, OK? I just tell you what people tell me.)

Anyway, Roger is author of the Killoyle Trilogy, part one of which is Killoyle, published by the Dalkey Archive; part two is The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad (Grove Press); and part three is Killoyle Wine and Cheese, which is being published this summer in Germany. In fact, says Roger, the other books have sold better, and had a better critical reception, in Germany than elsewhere. Which is a bit of a puzzle really, because they look to me as if they would be the divil to translate.

And you can't complain about a lack of opportunity to taste before you buy. Roger's web site gives lots of extracts to choose from. And I must say it all looks highly entertaining; though possibly something to be taken in small doses, like Irish whiskey, rather than swilled down like the Guinness.

In his spare time Roger writes real serious stuff about the likes of Ian McEwan, in an equally serious journal called the Boston Review. This is all several storeys above my head, and I get vertigo in the lift, so I don't go there. But there's more, I understand, in the archives.

In a possible attempt to ingratiate himself with a Wiltshire man, Roger tells me that in the late '70s he passed out under a tree in Warminster. Yes, a lot of people do, Roger. It's that sort of town.

I wonder if Roger is any relation to Blazes?

Odds and ends

Chris Abani

Truthdig is a US-based online magazine which deals with current affairs. By the look of it, it probably isn't funded by right-wing Republicans and born-again Christians. Not unless that lot have suddenly become critics of Bush and a whole lot more broad-minded than I take them to be.

As far as I can see, Truthdig does not cover the book beat to any significant degree, but it does have an essay by Chris Abani on how he came to write his novella Becoming Abigail. You can also read the first four chapters of the book.

Well, I guess all fiction has an origin in something or other, even if we don't know what it is. In my own most recent case, How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous, the story came to me in a dream.

Yes, I dare say that does explain a great deal.

Publishers Lunch on Amazon

The Publishers Lunch yesterday carried a short article -- well, actually a long one by PL standards -- listing all the new innovations that Amazon 2.0 is beginning to offer. Such as: tagging (as in; customer discussion boards; ProductWikis (a sort of Wikipedia, for products); profile pages for customers; Squidoo-lens type services; podcasts; Flickr-type image posting facilities; fulfilment for dealers; interactivity; and, doubtless, more. Amazon sells groceries in the US, someone told me.

Publishers, meanwhile, seem to think it's still 1995. PL comments:

It's time -- or rather way past time -- for publishers to look at getting out of the controlled, static web page mode and into the visitor-focused, information and interaction driven world that defines today's Internet. Today's world provides for, and practically demands, more dynamic 'publication' via the Internet. As we've mentioned before in other more limited discussions, if you're not the primary open-source source for readers then someone else will be -- Amazon, Google, MSN,, MySpace, and so on, and whomever you allow to develop those relationships in your place will be the entity holding the leveraging (and charging the fees) in the future, until at some point they really are the publishers.

See also Lynne Scanlon, below.

Stephen Sheppard

From time to time there are writers who experience a substantial success, and then they kind of disappear from view. For example, Robert McCrum did a piece in the Observer a couple of years ago about Desmond Hogan. And then there's James Adams, a high-powered Sunday Times journalist who wrote three thrillers in the 1990s ('One of the world's best defence journalists makes a stellar debut' -- Tom Clancy), but hasn't written any fiction since. Finding out what happened to him is almost impossible because the name James Adams is so common.

But the one who really used to puzzle me was Stephen Sheppard. He was perhaps the first UK writer to get a really massive advance out of a publisher. His novel The Four Hundred was signed, if memory serves, for £40,000 -- which was a lot of money in the late 1970s.

I kind of had it in the back of my mind that The Four Hundred was something of a flop, and that Stephen Sheppard had never written anything else. But it seems I was quite wrong. There is a blog -- well, actually more of a blog used as a web page -- called Kingdom. This explains everything. It seems that Stephen Sheppard did very nicely by most writers' standards.

Lynne Scanlon's survey

Lynne Scanlon has published (20 April) the results of her survey. Not perhaps conducted according to the most rigorous methodology that I've ever come across, the survey throws up some interesting data.

General conclusions: people read bestsellers but don't like to admit it; for all practical purposes, no one gives a shit about iUniverse and Lulu; no one reads free PDFs; no one pays much attention to author's web sites/blogs (except other authors with web sites and blogs); no one gives a repeat shit about publishers' web sites.

As for the last point, Lynne says:
The truth is, publishing companies don’t really care about their online sites. Author’s online web sites are a measure of desperation and determination. Publishing industry vanity web sites are the sweet arm candy of self-satisfied, rich guys on 345’ yachts pulling up to dock at Little Palm Island: irrelevant, but pretty, and good for the ego.
Which is pretty much what Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch thinks too (see above).

Maddox and all like that

The International Herald Tribune has joined in the chorus of stuff about Tucker Max, Maddox, and so forth. This will go on now, because newspapers, like bloggers, feed off each other. (Link from

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Paul Dorrell: Living the Artist's Life

You may remember that we noted in a couple of previous posts, 9 March 2006 and 21 February 2006, that Paul Dorrell's publisher was giving away (to established bloggers only) 250 copies of his non-fiction book Living the Artist's Life. Well, eventually a copy landed on my desk, and I've been reading it with some interest.

Living the Artist's Life was first published in hardback, by Hillstead Publishing of Kansas City, in 2004. The second, paperback, edition came out in March 2005. The book has a dedicated web site, and you can see from the lengthy list of reviews that it attracted a fair amount of attention and praise.

Essentially, this is a book written by an art gallery owner to provide advice to visual artists on how to further their careers. More to the point, perhaps, as far as this blog is concerned, is the fact that while Paul Dorrell is not a visual artist himself, he is very definitely a writer -- to be specific, a novelist. And the book itself makes clear that much of what Dorrell has to say is also relevant to writers.

On the very first page of the book, Dorrell tells us that he has been a gallery owner and art consultant since 1991. In that field he is considered a success. 'That's cool, but what I am first is an artist myself -- a novelist. That is the primary passion of my life.'

Fortunately, from the point of view of visual artists, Dorrell then goes on to give masses of useful advice to those who are desperately trying to get their work taken up by a gallery -- much as writers pester publishers. In the process, he is amazingly frank about the economics of running a gallery. His own, for example, ran at a considerable loss for a long time. At one point, when about $100,000 in debt, he could not afford to renew the fire insurance... and, yes, there was then a fire. However, he staggered on.

In addition to all that, Dorrell reveals his painful frustrations in trying to get his career as a writer off the ground. It took him six novels and fifteen years to land an agent, and when he did he became a classic case of 'We loved this book but...' The agent had 36 rejections before he gave up trying to sell a novel which many editors admired but could not figure out how to market.

Dorrell is brutally frank about the effect which all this had on his own state of mind. He tells us that at least twice a year he suffers from bouts of clinical depression which last a couple of months.

Overall this is a brave book. It is more self-revelatory than most people would be comfortable with.

As far as I am aware, Paul Dorrell has yet to see one of his novels in print, and at the very end of the book, he has things to say about failure.

What happens if you 'fail' and have to join the business world, or some world similar to it? The truth is, you haven't failed. All those years of struggle, adversity and wrestling with the muse have brought, in return, these years of growth and a hopefully mature outlook. Without the struggle you wouldn't have had the growth.
In other words, Paul Dorrell is very much of the 'you can do it if you just stick at it long enough' school of thought. To which the response of this rather world-weary old reader is: Hmm. Well. Yes. Maybe.

But it's worth noting, I think, that, before he found Hillstead Publishing, Dorrell had Living the Artist's Life rejected 177 times. So for him, at least, perseverance paid.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Pulitzer prizes

The Pulitzer prizes for 2006 have been announced. I said my bit about this last year and I won't repeat it here. Sufficient to say that the fiction winner is March by Geraldine Brooks. Unsurprisingly I have never previously heard of either writer or book.

Fulfilment with Amazon

Or fulfillment, if you're American. Anyway, whatever you call it, Amazon are offering a new service to their third-party vendors. I'm not entirely sure how it works, but a number of writers have noticed that Amazon starts offering 'new and used' copies of a book, at cheaper than Amazon prices, almost as soon as the book appears, if not actually before the damn thing is officially published. (See for instance, my own latest offering.) How does this work?

Well, I think it works because some small-time operators, without Amazon's overheads, are able to use Amazon to advertise/sell new books, sourced from the same suppliers as Amazon. And -- because these small operators don't have the overheads -- they are able to cut the price even below Amazon. (See Clive Keeble's comment on my post of 14 April 2006.)

What does this mean? Trouble for small booksellers, for a start.

Viktor Janis

Viktor Janis recently sent me an entertaining email to let me know about a device available from Palm, a PDA or handheld reader which he has found more than useful.

One of Viktor's jobs is to review mss for Czech publishers, and he drew my attention to Gordon Dahlquist's forthcoming The Glass Book of the Dream Eaters. I hadn't heard of this before but NY publishers certainly have. Publishers Weekly reported that Bantam paid $2 million for the rights (plus a $500,000 bonus on a two-book deal), and it's out next August. A mere 768 pages, it has been described as 'Philip Pullman for adults'. Penguin UK have paid a reported £400,000.

Viktor thinks that Dahlquist will soon become as famous as Susanna Clarke. And he should know, because he is currently translating Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell into Czech. (That book, by the way, weighs a good three pounds in print, but only one tenth of that weight when read on a PDA.)

Speaking of PDAs (again), Viktor's view, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that publishers are still doing it all wrong when it comes to selling ebooks, or ebook versions of successful novels. Their prices are way too high.

And who is Viktor Janis, you may be wondering. Answer, he is a freelance literary translator and editor from Prague. Radio Prague has interviewed him in English in 2002, and again in 2005. He has translated 45 books, mainly by big names such as Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Grahame Greene, et cetera. He says that he has edited more books than he can remember, including the Czech version of Banville's The Sea -- which he says is the longest 200-page book that he ever read in his life.

Yes indeed, Viktor. That's rather the way I feel. And I haven't even read it.

Posh Bingo

Professor John Sutherland has an eminently sensible article in the Telegraph about the Booker Prize (link from Quoting Julian Barnes's dismissive remark that the prize is a form of posh bingo, Sutherland concludes: 'Given the diversity of the contending novels, and the necessary subjectivity of readers, it could hardly be otherwise.' Thus Sutherland recognises, at least implicitly, that success in the Booker is, to a large extent, determined by randomness.

Of course the problem -- if problem there be -- is not how the prizewinner is selected; it is how the public and press react. Sensible people like Sutherland know perfectly well that the 'best' novel in any given year -- even the best literary novel -- cannot be decided in the same way that the longest piece of string can be decided, by measuring it with a ruler. But, once the winner is announced, the press and public proceed to behave as if the winner is the best novel of the year, in some absolute scientific sense. And it is the fortunate winner who enjoys the benefits of this winner-take-all reaction.

All of which was discussed in some detail in my post of 24 January 2005. That essay, incidentally, was included in Tim Worstall's anthology of bloggery, 2005: Blogged.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Michelle Lovric: The Remedy

The Remedy, by Michelle Lovric, is a story about life in the underworld of London and Venice; it is set in the late eighteenth century.

The book is a sublime example of the novelist's art; I warmly recommend it to anyone with a taste for fiction and some interest in Europe and its history. And the book nicely illustrates, as we shall see, the plight of the contemporary writer.

The principal characters in The Remedy are two lovers: the successful criminal Valentine Greatrakes, whom no one but a foreigner would mistake for a gentleman; and Catarina Venier, who was born to a noble Venetian family but who finds herself working as a common actress under the name Mimosina Dolcezza. She also doubles as a spy for the Venetian authorities.

What we have here is a book which is difficult to categorise. It is a highly romantic story, but the book is by no means a typical romance. There are many crimes in it, including a murder mystery, the solution to which is provided in the last chapter; but it is not a whodunit. The story involves espionage, but we do not have here a thriller. It is a historical novel, obviously. And it is, to a point, literary; though not quite literary enough, I suspect, to appeal to purist readers of that genre; it is a tad too commercial for them, and yet not commercial enough for, say, the Josephine Cox fans.

In brief, we have here a book which some would call gothic (though not me because I don't really understand what that means), but which in my view fits neatly into no pigeonhole: it is, I suspect, a marketing person's nightmare, in that it is a traditional mainstream novel, magnificently well done. But how can you sell that, in today's market?

In order to write a book such as this, the writer must bring to the table (or the word-processor) a multitude of skills: a capacity for detailed research into period and place; a well-founded knowledge of human nature; an assured grasp of narrative technique; a mastery (or mistressy?) of the use of language; patience; stamina; self-belief; and a love for the characters portrayed -- even when, like the grossly overweight and spoilt teenager, Pevenche, they are difficult to love. It is a measure, by the way, of this writer's skill that, by the end of the book, I had come to feel affection and sympathy for Pevenche, who is as unlovable a character as ever stamped her petulant little foot; or, in Pevenche's case, big flat foot.

There are many high points in the book, and it is invidious to pick out any. But I particularly enjoyed the section which deals with the quack doctor -- Dottore Velena -- who sells amazing 'medicines' on the streets of London. The Dottore's sales spiel is as fine a piece of sustained brilliance in the use of language as you are likely to come across in many a long year of reading.

Overall, the story is told without haste, in prose of a languorous nature. It is an extraordinary display of virtuosity, featuring passion, hate, fear, revenge, brutality, and kindness. It is a pleasure and a delight to read; I would be proud, myself, to have written anything half as good.

And yet... And yet...

My reservations are not about the book -- I hope I have made that clear -- but about the cruel and heartless world in which it has to make its way. What, I wonder, will be its ultimate reception and fate?

The Remedy was first published by Virago in the UK in 2005, as a trade paperback. A hardback edition was published by Regan Books in New York later that year. The UK mass-market paperback comes out in May, the US one in October.

Reviews? Publishers Marketplace reveals none in the US. The author's own web site quotes the Sunday Times from the UK, and a few Australian papers; the entry quotes Publishers Weekly and Booklist. All are polite, even enthusiastic. But the book has not, it seems, set the world alight.

So. The author has done a prodigious amount of research (see the book's appendix). She has spent several hundred hours exercising her not inconsiderable talents. And while I have not had the cheek to ask her publisher or agent how many copies Virago have so far sold in the UK (and almost certainly wouldn't get a straight answer if I did), you would not surprise me if you told me that the publisher had struggled to sell a thousand copies so far.

And that, dear Reader, is what I meant when I said that this book illustrates, to a nicety, the plight of the modern writer. Michelle Lovric has written a book which is every bit as good as those by Sarah Waters (whom she admires); but unlike Sarah she has not yet taken off.

Of course, it might yet happen. The television boys might film The Remedy (but it's wickedly expensive to do these costume things). But at present, all this author has to show for her effort and talent is a couple of modest (one suspects) advances (UK and USA), plus the admiration and respect of a boring old man in Wiltshire.

Not a lot, is it?


The Big Bad Book Blog

How did I miss this one? Especially as they link to me. Anyway, Galleycat finally made me notice the Big Bad Book Blog, which I've now added to the blogroll. Aimed, perhaps, more at publishers than writers, the BBBB nevertheless contains a lot of useful information. Try, for instance, their piece about the interior design of books -- something which, in my judgement, Americans are much better at than us Brits.

More Maddox

Well, as promised earlier, the New York Times did indeed take note of the Maddox phenomenon. The NYT thinks that there may be a new trend -- a masculine version of chick-lit which they suggest might be called fratire. Apparently mainstream publishers were dead scared of it when they first saw what it looked like.

Newsweek also considered this business newsworthy.

Libby Rees

By the way, Libby Rees was on Sky News last night (Monday) talking about 'her new TV show'. The only sensible aspect of the report came from Virginia Ironside, who suggested that it wasn't a good idea for children who have suffered during a divorce to be encouraged to go on thinking about it.

Why it's getting harder to sell books

The Times this morning (read over me porridge) has an article about how the TV boys (and girls) in America are getting smarter by the minute. (Would that this were true of publishers; rather the reverse applies there, one feels.) Apparently, during 2005 the average American household tuned in to TV for eight hours and 11 minutes per day. This is 2.7% longer than in the previous year, 12.5% longer than ten years ago, and, for good measure, the longest reported since Nielsen Media Research began monitoring such things in the 1950s.

What with that, iPods, CDs, DVDs, Uncle TC and all, no wonder publishers are sucking their teeth and wondering about early retirement.

Monday, April 17, 2006

David Hooper on the Da Vinci case

Huge mountains of tosh have been talked about the Da Vinci case, but at last we have an article which talks sense. It's written by David Hooper and it can be found in Publishing News.

If I were ever -- God forbid -- in serious legal trouble over a book-related matter, David Hooper is the lawyer I would think of first (though I doubt that I could afford him). He is currently with Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, and he is the author of Reputations Under Fire, which is the book on libel in terms of English law (particularly dangerous law for writers). He has been mentioned here briefly from time to time.

Hooper's view is that Baigent and Leigh 'cannot have received encouraging legal advice as to their chances of success.' And he agrees with my own view that the third co-author, Henry Lincoln, was wise to stay out of it.

The outcome of the case demonstrates, says Hooper, that 'The law is as everyone thought it was. Unless you copy the means of expression of facts and ideas, you do not breach copyright.'

Baigent and Leigh must now pay their own legal costs plus 85% of Random House's costs -- not much change out of £2 million. This figure alone surely casts doubt on the idea that it was all a put-up job to increase the royalties from both books and to boost Random House's profits; plus, of course, the movie box office. I just don't think the arithmetic works. Hooper says that 'the cost of such litigation [for Baigent and Leigh] would easily outweigh even the large additional sales.'

As for the idea that it cost Random House nothing because they used in-house lawyers, who are being paid a salary anyway-- well, I hardly think so. The English legal system just does not work that way. Just by way of example, Richard Spearman QC, who represented Baigent and Leigh, cannot by any stretch of imagination be described as a Random House in-house lawyer. And I bet he ain't cheap.

At the end of the day, says Hooper, 'Baigent and Leigh made an unwise and ruinous decision to accuse Brown of plagiarism.' The winners? Dan Brown; Random House; Henry Lincoln (who gets increased royalties with no legal bills); and the Da Vinci movie. 'And, of course, the lawyers.'

Oh yes. We mustn't forget them.

Monday roundup

Dame Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark has died, aged 88. Maud Newton is a keen fan, and has done a nice tribute to her, with lots of links. One of Spark's last books, Aiding and Abetting, was recommended here on 23 February 2006.

Around the same time, Kelly Jane Torrance published an enthusiastic survey of Spark's work in Doublethink. I am inclined to agree with the view that, for all the many honours bestowed upon her, Spark's work is a bit undervalued.

Another old lady

Last week's Times recorded the death of another of those tough old British women -- the kind of person who combined character, brains, physical stamina and courage, erudition, and a whole lot more: the Dowager Lady Hesketh.

In her youth Kisty Hesketh was a noted horsewoman and a good shot with a rifle. Widowed at 25, with three sons, she lost an eye in a car crash at 33, and thereafter wore a black patch. She was a diligent researcher and historian, wrote a book on Scottish tartans which was published in 20 countries, and earned herself a proper PhD from London University and an honorary one from Leicester.

The Times reports that she was an intrepid traveller, often with her great friend Pamela, Lady Egremont. She once took the route from the Atlas Mountains to Gibraltar without a sleeping bag. 'One gets used to sleeping on the ground quite quickly,' she explained.

Well yes. Indeed. That's what I've always found.

Recycling titles

The Book Standard has a link to an AP article about books with the same titles. It's hardly news that many titles are used quite often, sometimes causing confusion. And lawyers will sometimes try complaining if you use a title that they don't think you should. But Otto Penzler describes how to deal with them.

Should you wish to check whether your own proposed title has been used before, you can use Amazon to review books in print. And in the UK you can check all books from the beginning of time by going to the British Library catalogue (available on COPAC). In the US, I guess you can use the Library of Congress.

Oddly enough, no one has used How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous before. (See today's extract, below.)

Mover Mike

Not many blogs, I suspect, are written by retired stockbrokers with an interest in poetry, but Mover Mike's is. If you are interested in a mixture of financial comment, current affairs, and some literary stuff, this is the place.

Danuta Kean on the economics of the business

Clive Keeble kindly draws my attention to an article by Danuta Kean in The Independent. This is definitely one to print out and keep (click on the 'printable version' button at the bottom).

Danuta is an experienced and well connected journalist in book-world circles and she has much valuable data to offer you on the current economics of writing. Figures and examples relate to the UK, but you can be quite certain that the position is much the same elsewhere. Clive Keeble questions whether the figures offered are dead right, but they will inevitably vary from book to book and publisher to publisher.

Basically, the message for writers is: Don't give up the day job.

The Indie article is an edited extract from the cover story of the latest issue of Mslexia, the magazine for women who write. Could be worth buying the whole thing. For details see the mag's web site.

The Wicked Witch does survey

Lynne Scanlon invites you to participate in her survey of online publishing (14 April). Legamus ergo emomus. And all like that (read the comments).

Friday, April 14, 2006

Hot cross buns

Minx on definitions

Minx has some useful definitions of terms such as 'editor' and 'mss'.

The Never Ending Story

The Never Ending Story (with or without spaces between the words) describes itself as the 'world’s first interactive constantly evolving books website..... a unique new online facility that for the first time allows Internet users from anywhere in the world to read, and importantly contribute to, a range of online publications including fictional constantly evolving stories that are started by well-known authors and personalities.'

This project seems to be aimed at wannabe writers and has some backing from firms which provide services to new and self-publishing writers, so you would need to read the small print carefully -- which I haven't done.

Attitudes will vary, I'm sure. Some will think it a waste of time if not positively pernicious; others will think it fun. The founder is Arup Biswas, and he has hopes that it might become the next Friends Reunited.

Investing in business books

Publishers Lunch a day or two ago had a link to an article in BusinessWeek, wherein the results of a survey of writers of business books are presented.

Writing a book, we are told, pays dividends for the owners of small businesses. Most of the authors surveyed said that 'the indirect benefits -- generating more leads, closing more deals, charging higher fees, and getting better speaking engagements -- far outweighed the direct benefits of book publishing. Even if a business book sells 15,000 copies -- which is considered quite good [US market] -- an author getting royalties of $1 per book, minus percentages for book agents and ghostwriters, is not going to make much, considering the time they devote to the process.'

And, please note: Selling the book was recognised as absolutely vital, a task that 'involves significant investment -- both up front and after the book comes out. Writing a book takes at least nine months or a year and it's quite a difficult creative undertaking. Our survey showed that 51% of authors invested personal funds in marketing their books. The amount they invested ranged from under $1,000 up to $150,000. The median amount was $4,500.'

As little as that then.

Engineering, anyone?

Four UK engineering bodies are offering scriptwriters £35,000 if they feature a fictional engineering character in a positive light, either on stage, screen, radio or in print.

Andrew Ives, IMechE President, says that 'For too long, people have had misconceptions of what an engineer is and does. Remember, without medical engineers, the fictional doctors of ER and Casualty would not be able to save all their patients, or without aerospace engineers, Top Gun would be a rather less action-packed movie!' (Link from

Delivery times

I don't know about you, but when I decide to buy a book I want to get hold of it pretty damn quick. Which is how impulse buys come about. You see it, you buy it. Also, on Amazon, there is the one-click system. Very tempting.

However, it is worth just restraining yourself for a moment, particularly if you're an online buyer. Shopping around is sometimes worthwhile, particularly if it's an expensive illustrated book. A few clicks to comparative suppliers may result in a saving of £10 or $15.

What is more, it is sometimes instructive to compare delivery times. Theoretically, all retailers should be equal in this regard. But they ain't.

If you live in the UK, you might, perhaps, find it worthwhile to compare the obvious Amazon with some other kids on the block. The giant supermarket Tesco, for instance, run an interesting site. And yesterday I was recommended to look at another supplier that I'd never even heard of before: Worth a look.

Specifically, I cannot advise you at present, to buy any Kingsfield Publications books, including my new novel (see below) from Amazon. Delivery times are simply unacceptable. For the moment at least it is better to use or, who actually can deliver promptly.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pensioners who blog

Somebody wrote to me a few weeks ago and said that, at a seminar at the London Book Fair, there had been some discussion of blogging as a young person's game. In response, someone else had mentioned the GOB as an example of an older person who blogs. And now, lo, the mighty and esteemed NY Times has a whole article about pensioners who blog -- or Elderbloggers, as they're apparently known. (Link from Blogger Buzz.) The article doesn't mention the GOB, but we'll forgive them for that.

You have to register to read the NYT stuff, but you only need to do it once and then you're in. The NYT suggests that the internet is home to approximately 54.3 million blogs (double the previous highest figure that I've seen). Nearly 60% are written by people younger than 19, and just 0.3% of blogs are run by people aged 50 or older; yet that's still about 160,000 bloggers.

(How do they know this stuff? I mean I know the NYT is hot on fact checking, but I don't remember anyone ringing me up and asking how old I am. But I have been rung up by someone from the house magazine of American Airlines. There's fame for you.)

None of the bloggers specifically mentioned seems to write directly about books. But then there are other sides to life. Or so I'm told.

Worth looking at are Pete Lustig's blog -- he's 84 and thinks he may be the world's oldest blogger. Then there's Ronni Bennet, who's a mere 65. Ha! She has links to a hundred or so other oldies who blog. And Ronni, by the way, has an alter ego called Crabby Old Lady. Mort Reichek is another octogenarian. And finally Milt Rebman, who is surviving with prostate cancer and still has things to say. None of these people is any sort of slouch at the blogging business.

Libby Rees update

The arrival on the publishing scene of 10-year-old author Libby Rees was noted here on 16 December 2005. Libby, you may recall, is from the Aultbea stable of pre-pubescent authors, and Aultbea is a firm which is chiefly famous for getting newspapers to publish wildly exaggerated stories as if they were solid fact. For details, see my post on Dragon Tamers from June last year.

Then, on 10 March 2006, I noted with some scepticism the claim that Libby was soon to host her own Trisha-style TV chat show (think UK Oprah). And now there's more.

The BBC now tells us, with cute picture, that Libby is 'helping to develop her own TV show.' Libby, it seems, has 'signed a development contract with TV production company Redback Films.' The show, under the working title Ask Libby, has 'not been commissioned yet and is still in the early stages.' In other words, it's all just a gleam in someone's eye. An idea which might happen one day but stands about a 1% chance. Tops. More realistically, 0.1%.

And who, you may reasonably ask, are Redback Films? Well they aren't actually a brand-new company, which rather surprises me. They have made a number of TV documentaries, including one about Lockerbie.

Well, as a certain novel published recently makes clear, TV companies produce some odd programmes these days. And, according to yesterday's Sun, Chantelle is to marry Preston. So who knows. Libby may yet appear before your very eyes.

'To have a TV show,' says Libby, 'would be a bit surreal.'

Yyyyyup. I think you could say that.

I suppose it would be terribly boring of me to point out that this story isn't really news at all. It's idle gossip. And to find it coughed up as if it actually meant something, by an organisation like the BBC, is deeply depressing. The BBC was once the acknowledged the source of reliable news for the oppressed peoples of this world, but the organisation was well nigh destroyed in the 1990s by the 'management guru' John Birt, and now seems beyond rescue.

We really loved your stuff, but...

The Literary Saloon provides a link to yet another experiment on the reliability and validity of slush-pile readings. Mark Sanderson, a man who clearly has his ear to the ground, reports the case of John Howard, author of children's book The Key to Chintak, who began to suspect that those who sent him rejection slips weren't actually reading his ms.

How could he have even dreamed such a thing? He should, to quote Muhammad Ali, have apologised.

Anyway, John tested his hypothesis. He typed out a new ms, entitled The Tin Drum, and for the text used extracts from a washing-machine manual. And, as you would expect:

'Dear John, Thank you for your submission which I read and enjoyed. Unfortunately...'

If you visit John Howard's web site for The Key to Chintak, you will find that he has some formidably impressive quotations from trade professionals who actually did read his book and liked it. All in all, The Key to Chintak seems to be a self-published success story. The Bookseller says that it has sold 5,000 copies. And, as anyone in the UK book trade knows, selling even 10% of that number is not to be sniffed at.

Of course, the classic text on the slush-pile business (and on the writer/publisher relationship in general) is my own On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which is available as a free ebook. Essential reading if you wish to remain sane in a mad world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Jim Heath: Your Dog is Watching You

Quick guide to quality: I am not a dog lover; have never owned one; but have been bitten by one recently while out in the country and minding my own business. So I am not the most obviously suitable reader for Jim Heath's Your Dog is Watching You. Nevertheless, I read most of this book with some interest, so it must be pretty good.

It's fairly obvious, I suppose, that this is a non-fiction book, aimed at dog owners. The subtitle is 'A writer finds out about dog psychology the hard way'.

What happened was that Jim acquired a small dog, and, as you do, took it out for walks. This led to various unpleasant and alarming incidents in which Jim's dog was attacked by bigger ones. The dog (named Mono) was also a bit reluctant (I euphemise) to obey orders. Fortunately, Jim was lucky enough to come across a dog psychologist, Jacquie Humphrey, and it is her ideas and teachings which form most of the second half of the book.

What we have here is, in my view, the ideal birthday or Christmas present for anyone who owns a dog, or, better still, is thinking about acquiring one. It would have been immensely useful, for instance, to at least half a dozen dog owners of my own acquaintance, many of who tested my patience (not to mention my nerves) when their uncontrolled animals threatened my person.

I remember one rabid beast in particular, all of twelve inches high, which would bite fingers off anyone who tried to take it to the vet. Treatment could not begin until the vet had gone out into the car park, and, from a distance of some fifty yards or so, had fired an anaesthetic dart into it.

Crowds used to gather to watch this performance. But even then, when paralysed by a dose large enough to lay out the average cow, this dog would, like the dying Stalin, open one eye and snarl menacingly. Several people were seriously injured by being trampled underfoot in the ensuing panic.

All of that can be avoided by close study of Jim Heath's book. Not only will readers learn how to improve their dogs' manners, but they will also learn quite a lot of interesting stuff about how the present-day dogs were all bred from wolves -- and not so very long ago at that.

It is perhaps not surprising that Jim Heath should have written such a useful little book (129 pages), because he's done the job before. The back cover tells us that he has published books and long articles on electronic encryption, insects, the inside story of debt collection, water supplies, rare orchids, and a lot more. So he knows how to do the job. After travelling widely, he and his wife now live permanently in Australia.

Suppose, for example, that you also live in Australia, and you've been wondering about those damned flies. Fear not. Jim has written a book for you, and it's available free online. The original self-published version, by the way, sold out all 7,000 copies of its first edition and made a handsome profit.

Of course, just as some people are obsessed with doggies, my own obsession (as is well known by now) is with writing. And I did get the odd smile, here and there in Jim's book, when I compared the behaviour of dogs (and their owners) with the behaviour of writers.

On page 24, for example, he describes how you can more or less guarantee (usually inadvertently) that your dog will get into a fight. Ah yes, I thought, and we all know how writers can more or less guarantee that their hopes will be dashed.

And then there are references to the way in which dogs try to enhance their status by peeing higher up a tree trunk than the other dogs. Ye-es....

And then there are the dog owners who have read all the right stuff, know what they should be doing, but don't do it because it's all too time-consuming and too much effort.

Oh yes. All human life is there. Even if it is a book about dogs.

Jim Heath's Your Dog is Watching You is a classic example of the kind of book that I fully endorse. It is one man's hard-earned experience, put down on paper so that others can benefit. And it's published (since it's unlikely that anyone else would consider it cost-effective) at his own expense. This is another Booksurge effort, and a tidy enough example for its purpose. You can find it through any branch of Amazon (ISBN 1-921019-20-4), or through Booksurge's own bookstore.