Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wottakars is a-cummen in

There have been so many twists and turns in this everyday story of booktrade folk that I have grown weary of even thinking about it, let alone saying anything here. But it seems, subject, no doubt, to the whims of the gods, that HMV (owners of the UK bookselling chain Waterstone's) are at last about to buy Ottakar's (a smaller chain). Reuters have the story (link from

There are those who feel that this is a thoroughly bad thing for writers and publishers, in that it will reduce competition on the UK high street, and create an entity even more powerful than the present Waterstone's, i.e. one which can bully the publishers to an even geater extent than is the case today.

The wisdom of Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly is a publisher and general computer guru whose thinking about the interaction of the internet and publishing has been recommended here more than once. On 18 May 2005, for instance, I referred to his 2002 essay, in which he made a number of telling points: the most notable, to my mind, being that 'Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.' And again, on 28 February 2006, I referred to Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0.

Now, thanks to John Sundman, I have been pointed to some other most interesting material. On O'Reilly Radar, for instance, you can find the results of an analysis undertaken by O'Reilly Research. It's a longish article, and calls for some concentration, plus a study of the comments and discussion afterwards.

My interpretation of the data is that the internet creates a much more level playing field for writers and publishers than does the high-street bookstore. In other words, making books available online -- in one form or another, whether complete texts or samples -- enables readers to find, and perhaps buy, such books much more readily than does the average madhouse which currently masquerades under the name bookshop.

Here on this blog we tend, perhaps, to concentrate on fiction, which may lead us to overlook the fact that most books are non-fiction of one type or another. In my opinion, non-fiction writers are going to find that Web 2.0 is really good news. And not only in terms of sales: as Lynne Scanlon has pointed out, a book can provide benefits other than simply through royalties; and the better known that book is, the greater the benefits.

John Sundman also led me to another piece by Tim O'Reilly, this time entitled Publisher, be very, very afraid? Actually this is a quote from the New York Times headline in reference to Kevin Kelly's recent article Scan this book. Kelly's article included, among other things, an argument in favour of a universal, free digital library that would be available to everyone, even 'elderly people in Peru'.

Scan this book, published 14 May 2006, got a cool reception in some quarters, notably from Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly. Nelson was alarmed by Kelly's comment that the original purpose of copyright was as an incentive to keep a creator working, whereas the 1998 congressional extension of copyright 'now exist[s] primarily to protect a threatened business model.' And among some of those who commented on Sara Nelson's editorial, the Kelly piece seems to have engendered abject terror. The idea that present copyright laws might not be in the best public interest upset a few people (but not me -- see my comments on the Nelson article at the PW site).

Well, Tim O'Reilly's point is that much of this alarm at Kelly's ideas is misplaced. 'There is,' he says, 'a lot to learn in the new world, but the biggest fear that publishers should be thinking about is the fear that they will be displaced by new publishers who are better at mastering the [changed] rules of business than they are.'

As with the first O'Reilly essay, this one has some enlightening comments attached to it. There is the parent, for instance, whose teenage daughter has built up a small but international online audience for her music. And there is the thinker who proposes the following thesis: 'The entire publication industry, all media, will be reduced to four businesses -- retail, reviewers, librarians, and content creators.' (O'Reilly disagrees.)

As for the copyright issues raised by the Kelly article: well, I am in favour of observance of the law. However, as Macaulay pointed out, in the House of Commons in 1841, bad laws are ignored and flouted. And if copyright law, or certain aspects of it, comes to be seen as a barrier to the public interest, something is going to have to give. Compromises are going to have to be made.

And, of course, before you get too panicky about that, remember O'Reilly's main point. The smart thing to do is not to stand there wringing your hands, but to figure out a way to make the new technology work to your advantage.

One of O'Reilly's commenters says this:

Consider Michael Tiemann's "Metcalf's law" economic analysis of FLOSS -- very relevant, I think, to your own view of Web 2.0: "The value of a network is proportionate to the square of the number of users." The potential value, therefore, of the cross-linked, universally annotatable library is vast. Is copyright law enough to lead us to resist that potential value? I would think not -- rather, the assumption of such a library should be a dominant factor in planning for the next few years. (I say that copyright law is not strong enough here because it is unenforcable beyond a certain boundary and, if rivals outside of that boundary begin to realize the value of the hyper-participatory-library, those inside the boundary will have no choice but to adapt by emulation.)
I don't know whether this stuff interests you at all, but if you're a publisher you really ought to wrestle with it, whether you find it interesting or not; and, if you're a writer, all the more so. The comments on this second O'Reilly piece are, by the way, several times longer than the original article itself, and will take you some time to absorb.

I heard it on the grapevine

A couple of yesterday's papers (e.g. the Financial Times) carried small reports, based on an press release, to the effect that:

The world's first audio-only novel will be launched this week in a sign that the surge in demand for downloadable books is set to provide a new medium for budding authors and performers.

Sex on Legs, a 75,000-word novel written and read by Brian Luff, will be available for download on despite Mr Luff, a London-based comedian, having no contract with a traditional book publisher. Audible, the US company that dominates the audiobook market, is the company behind the popular Ricky Gervais podcasts.

You can read more about it on Audible itself. You have to pay for Sex on Legs, of course. This ain't no freebie.

More ado about nothing new

On Monday we noted that the Sunday Times was attempting to claim credit for exposing a book-trade scandal (retailers charge publishers for display space et cetera) when in fact the 'scandal', if such there be, was known about at least five years ago.

On Monday the ST's sister paper, the Times, rehashed the story: Secret of fees that make a bestseller. And yesterday, also in the Times, the columnist Libby Purves took a third bite at it: Reader, you're a right dimwit.

So much so fairly standard operating procedure, I suppose, at least in the newspaper world. And there's no real need to read any of it. But it's worth noting that Libby Purves repeats the statement which I do not believe to be true, namely that it was the Sunday Times which first broke this story in 2001. If the Times staff repeat it a few more times it will become established fact.

However, it seemed to me that Libby Purves did make one good point. Here it is:
You would think that, knowing how skewed the trade has become, book page editors would question the status quo as journalists do in every other area. You would think that their mission was to seek out interesting new books while scornfully ignoring hype-fests. There is little evidence of this, except in some odd and praiseworthy corners. Journalists like to feel they are up there with the “buzz”, even if the buzz is largely artificial. Where reviews do diverge from the well-trodden track of the week’s “key” books, it is often only into a cosy circuit of settling old scores, or bigging up friends who will soon return the favour. This is often undeclared, which shocks the strait-laced American media (read the New York Times arts ethical policy online, boys, and hang your heads).
Hear, hear.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ain't it awful?

Oh, dearie, dearie me. Things is not what they was. Wind back the clock. Tell me it ain't so.

In the Observer (link from Robert McCrum laments... well, laments something or other. Has the novel lost its way? he asks. Novelists now become celebrities and they get lots of money. But, in the rush to cash in, 'quality control has plummeted and the British novel has suffered.'

Well, bless his old heart, this article is mostly a load of cobblers, and I don't really know why I bothered to read it. But since I did, here are a few comments.

Malcolm Bradbury, McCrum tells us, defined the literary novel as a difficult book that nobody wants to read. I rather like that. Anyway, according to McCrum, round about 1969, when the Booker prize was first established, the (British, literary) novel was more or less dead, being overtaken in prestige and popularity by the New Journalism (as expounded by Tom Wolfe) and the theatre (in the shape of David Hare). Then along came Salman Rushdie and injected new blood into the novel's system.

Following Rushdie, it soon became clear that, if you won the Booker, you could become a famous millionaire. And everyone wanted a piece of that, so they all got busy. Result: rubbish. McCrum quotes Tom Maschler, 'veteran cheerleader for the prize', as acknowledging that 'some of the [shortlisted] novels have been such very strange choices that it is really very difficult to make sense of them.'

McCrum also tosses in a reference to blogging, which, he says, 'has enfranchised a new group of wannabes, creating the sensations of authorship (with none of the pain).' Well, speak for yourself, sunshine. I take a few pains over mine.

And then he lists 20 'all-time great Booker winners', plus ten runners-up. Of these 30 books, I have read one with great enjoyment. That's Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. I don't think Fingersmith is a literary novel at all: I think it got on the Booker list by accident, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Fingersmith is a piece of neo-Victorian porno-lesbian melodrama, and bloody good with it.

As for the other books on McCrum's list, I sort of read Possession, by A.S. Byatt, because that's also Victorian, but I found it hard going. And I tried to read Last Orders, by Graham Swift, because he apparently went to the same college as me. But I only stuck it for about ten minutes. After which I decided that it would be more fun to go outside and put my hand in the lawnmower blades before they had quite finished turning. I saw the movie versions of a couple of others, though. Does that count?

As usual with such learned and literary chaps, McCrum twitters on about the state of the novel, totally ignoring the novel as read and loved by ordinary people: the ones who read crime, romance, science fiction, and mainstream books by the likes of Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope.

Now, I have no objection whatever to people writing, publishing, and reading literary novels. If they enjoy them, lucky them. But what really gets up my nose is the sheer bloody arrogance of those who speak of 'the novel' when they really mean just a particularly narrow type of literary fiction. There are other sorts of books, you know, and I have yet to hear an argument that convinces me that literary novels are, in any significant way, superior to any other kind.

Those who, over the past few decades, have celebrated the death of snobbery in England were, I fear, a tad premature. Snobbery of the most objectionable kind is alive and well and living in Bloomsbury.

Lost? Or just confused....

A few years ago -- well, perhaps 20 or 30 -- a British TV company did a bit of research and found that those who watched the silver screen often couldn't tell the difference between re-enactments of events and actual events, caught on film.

In other words, when questioned about a TV documentary which had included some acted-out versions of events which had never been filmed live (perhaps the arrest of some spies, say), the viewers often thought that they had been watching the real thing. Fact and fiction can easily get blurred in the minds of those who are watching TV while they eat their tea. Which is one reason, I suppose, why you now see little labels at the top of your screen saying Re-enactment, or Reconstruction, or words to that effect.

It's getting to be a bit similar in the book world. I say that because Gary Troup, it seems, has written a novel.

Gary Troup, who he?

Gary Troup, he a fictional character in Lost, that's who he. And Lost is a made-up TV story. It ain't true, OK? But that doesn't stop the Hanso Corporation taking full-page ads in the American press to object to the way in which they are portrayed in Gary's novel. And it doesn't stop our Gary having a web site of his own either.

And it doesn't stop people speculating on how the internet might be used to attract readers to a whole new interactive fiction/fact thingummy-whatsit, and all like that. And before long you'll be telling me it's Tuesday, when I know perfectly well we're still in May. Unless, of course, you happen to be reading this in June.

And why does the clock at the Hanso Foundation change to OB:EY whenever it hits 15:04, or 15:08, or 23:15? That's what I want to know.

Answers to all these imponderables may be found in the Scotsman (link from Or perhaps not.

Charles J Shields: Mockingbird

Today, 30 May 2006 (unless I mistake me), is publication day for Charles J Shields's biography of Harper Lee. Its full title is Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Harper Lee (and not everyone will know this because they aren't all as old as we are) is the (female) author of a novel called To Kill a Mockingbird. First published in 1960, her book was a big seller and a big critical success (winning the Pulitzer). It has gone on being both ever since. The 1962 movie, starring Gregory Peck, didn't do it any harm either.

Here's part of the synopsis of the book on
Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.
That tells you enough, I think. It's about growing up (as everyone does, somewhere), and it's about the race issue in the deep south; and it's about justice. Some forty-plus years have passed since I read it, but I seem to remember finding it just a bit too politically correct for my taste (though we didn't use that expression then), and a bit too cutesy and twee. I never took to it.

Most other people did take to it, however. It was the right book in the right place at the right time.

So 'right' was it that, for whatever reason, Harper Lee has never written (or at least published) anything else. She came close, once or twice, but it has never happened. So far.

This, then, is the woman who is the subject of Charles J Shields's biography. He got no help whatever, it seems, from the lady in question: Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1965; but he did interview some 600 other people.

I have a horrid suspicion that one of the reasons why Mockingbird has continued to sell is that it is on the reading lists of many a US (and probably UK) Eng Lit course. That is a circumstance which, for a writer, is better than a pension; it's a neat trick to pull off, but I have absolutely no advice on how to do it. As I say, right book, right time, right place. I'm not sure you can plan for that.

Meanwhile you can read Shields's book and try to figure it out.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bungs in Britain

Yesterday's Sunday Times did a little bit of work on quite an old story, and, in the true tradition of journalism, claimed that its report was new and exclusive.

'£50,000 to get a book on recommended list' said the headline. And the text which followed revealed how WH Smith (Britain's biggest bookseller) is 'demanding payments of £50,000 a week from publishers to get books on its supposedly impartial list of "recommended" reads in the run-up to Christmas this year.'

The story continues:

The WH Smith scheme is the most expensive in a range of confidential deals being operated by retailers to promote lists that consumers believe are based on independent assessments of a book’s quality.

No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked.

Other big booksellers which charge for places on schemes such as 'book of the week' or 'recommended' are Waterstone’s and Borders, which owns Books Etc.

The most expensive is WH Smith’s 'adult gold' scheme, which is currently being presented to publishers who are expected to pay £50,000 a week per book for a place.

This guarantees a prominent position in the store’s 542 high street shops and inclusion in catalogues and other advertising. For the critical four-week Christmas sales period, it would cost a publisher at least £200,000 per book.

And so on.

Well we've known all this for some time. The Sunday Times claims that it was the first to expose the schemes five years ago, but I've always believed that it was an anonymous article in the Spectator which first blew the whistle.

Now, however, publishers feel that the whole thing is getting out of hand. As well they might, if the prices quoted are correct.

The Sunday Times followed up this story with an editorial, if you please.

Most of us have the impression that titles placed prominently on display have been put there on merit. A book chosen as the week’s best read must surely be good or it would not have been selected by such a seemingly agreeable shop...

When you see a Waterstone’s book of the week, bear in mind that the publisher will have paid £10,000 for the privilege. Inclusion in three-for-two or other promotional schemes also involves money changing hands. There is nothing wrong in this if the shops are open about it. But customers are fooled because they believe that the titles come with the bookseller’s unbiased recommendation. Usually they do not. When record companies bribed DJs to plug records, didn’t they call it 'payola'?

In the meantime we are happy to have brought the culprits to book.

Well, actually, chums, you're five years behind the Spectator, and you've got some of the details wrong.

This whole question of bungs for books has been discussed on the GOB before. More than once. And the last time, in response to my rather tetchy comments, Nicholas Clee (a former editor of the Bookseller and himself a regular writer for the Times), kindly gave us details of how the deals are really struck. Here's what he said:

The reason people make a fuss about co-op promotions [between publishers and retailers] now is that they cost more, and are more visible. The principle is not new. The bookseller chooses the books; it goes to the publisher; the publisher pays.

It has been suggested that Waterstone's and co promote books only because publishers will pay for them. At the same time, one reads that Scott Pack is making the choices that determine what will be on the bestseller lists.

The latter assertion is a caricature, but is closer to the truth than the one about publishers simply having to get out their cheque books to buy space. Waterstone's, Ottakars, Borders and co choose the books they want to promote. These books tend to be the ones they think their customers will want, and they tend to be ones that publishers are prepared to back. I've heard of no instance of a publisher's buying space that a bookseller would not have given without financial incentive.


Times change, eh?

This utterly banal and entirely unoriginal thought popped into my head as a result of a visit, on Saturday afternoon last, to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see a stage adaptation of Irvine Walsh's novel Trainspotting.

Trainspotting was the author's first novel, and you can find an exhaustive discussion and description of it on Wikipedia. First published in 1993, the novel was both a literary success (longlisted for the Booker) and a popular hit.

There are two main points to be made about the novel here. First, parts of it were written in a phonetic version of English as spoken with an extreme Scottish accent. This form of speech is technically, I suppose, a dialect rather than a separate language, and for a scholarly discussion of it you should again dip into Wikipedia. But you should know that speech in this style is pretty difficult to follow, either in written or spoken form, unless you were born north of the border.

Second, you should know that the book deals with a group of young Scottish low-lifes, drug addicts, layabouts, psychopaths, and general no-goods, with associated shocking events. Well, potentially shocking.

The book was turned into a film, in 1996, but that need not detain us here. And earlier, in 1994, Harry Gibson had done an adaptation of it for the theatre. One succinct description of his play version sums it up as follows: a 'bleak , black, tragically funny tale of a wasted generation destroyed not by madness but by heroin.'

It is a new touring version of this play that Mrs GOB and I saw on Saturday afternoon, at the odd time of 4.00 pm. Presumably the producers hoped, by putting on the matinee performance at that hour, rather than the usual 2.30, to attract a younger type of audience. And in that they succeeded: Mrs GOB noted that the audience included quite a number of young women in pairs (for company, I think, rather than because of any lesbian relationship), and a number of young men who had made only irregular, and not recent, visits to the shower room.

The play features a flexible set, easily converted to represent quite a number of locations, and five actors sufficed to cover considerably more than five characters.

There are several things to be said about the play (in case you're thinking of seeing it). The first is that, as with the novel, the language is so Scottish as to be more or less incomprehensible unless you're used to it. The second is that it is unrelentingly filthy. I could recognise about three words in ten, on average, and two of those words were usually fuck and cunt. If there was an adjective employed other than fucking, during the entire evening, I missed it. And cunt was used as an all-purpose noun, meaning man, woman, friend, enemy, idiot, bright boy, and so forth. All the other four-letter words made their appearance at regular intervals.

Since the play is about a bunch of drug addicts, we got plenty of on-stage shooting up, with all the usual paraphernalia: belt round the arm to raise a vein, candle, spoon, and so forth. We had some nudity: at one point a junkie came on stage naked, failed to find a vein in any normal part of his body, and in the end injected himself in his penis.

Then we had some set pieces:

There was the one at the start, where the main character describes how he woke up in a strange bed, not knowing where he was, and discovered, to use his terms, that he had shat himself, puked up, and also, for good measure, soaked the bed in piss. The character then embarked on an account of how he gathered together the soiled sheets, set off to try to get them clean, but only succeeded (if I followed the story correctly) in showering his girl friend's parents with the contents.

Another set piece occurred (again I am assuming that I followed the drift of the story correctly), when a girl who was working as a waitress in a restaurant took offence at the manners of someone she was serving, and found an opportunity to mix the contents of her thoroughly soaked tampon with the customer's food. Another disliked customer was served profiteroles. the chocolate sauce on which had been liberally dosed with 'shite'.

There was a third story (just by way of example -- there were others) when one character described how he obtained some opium suppositories to dampen down the side-effects of his various drug-related aches and pains. Overtaken by a sudden and absolutely catastrophic attack of diarrhoea (copiously acted out), the young man eventually realised that he had unwittingly disposed of his two opium suppositories in the toilet bowl. Fortunately he had not yet flushed his prizes away, so he got down on his hands and knees, and groped about, up to his shoulder in shit (amusingly splattering the front rows of the audience as he did so), until he eventually found what he wanted. Then he shoved them back up his arse again.

Now... However appalling these stories may sound -- and they certainly are appalling -- they were performed on stage by some very skilled young actors who managed to make them funny. Even to me. And sitting behind me were some middle-aged women, of Scottish descent, who could clearly follow every word, and who cackled away like mad things.

A middle-aged couple sitting next to us did not return after the interval, but Mrs GOB and I are made of sterner stuff. We had found it just a tad tedious, frankly, being bombarded with this endless stream of obscenity, simulated sex, pregnant women being kneed in the stomach (and also shagged from behind in the toilet, a process graphically referred to as putting one's cock in the baby's mouth), junkies' babies being found dead, and so forth. But we had hopes that act two might be better.

It was. Considerably. Aided by some outstanding acting, the characters began to assume a curious kind of stature which somehow made them tragic and impressive. And, while I couldn't say that I had a very clear idea of what happened to them in the end, one felt somehow moved to have made their acquaintance. On the whole I was quite glad to have seen the play.

Which brings me back to my first point.

Times change, eh?

You won't remember, and you probably won't care, but censorship of stage plays was not abandoned in the UK until 1968, when I was nearly thirty years old. Prior to that date, every British play performed in a public theatre had to meet with the Lord Chamberlain's approval. And it is absolutely inconceivable that the Lord Chamberlain would ever have allowed even one mention of words such as fuck and cunt. Totally inconceivable. In the first production of Waiting for Godot, the word fart was found unacceptable, and belch had to be substituted. Homosexuality could not be mentioned on stage, and neither could Jesus. Anything remotely smutty, religious, or political, was banned.

So, in the 1960s, Trainspotting would never have got off the ground. The language, the nudity, the occasional blasphemy, the simulated sex, and the drug taking, all of these would have rendered it impossible of production.

Compare that with today. I have just re-read the review of this play which appeared last week in my local paper, the Wiltshire Times. This, you should understand, is a strictly regional newspaper devoted to reports of weddings, accounts of meetings of the Townswomen's guild and the like, and the local football scores. Short of something exciting, such as a stolen car, 'Dog cuts paw on canal bank' will be a front-page story.

What did this paper make of Trainspotting?

Well for a start the review said nothing about the language or the nudity. True, it did refer to a 'rollercoaster ride of drug-induced highs and unsettling lows', and 'black humour, with detours into tragedy and despair'. But there was no hint that you might get a short training course in how to use heroin, that you might hear some fairly revolting stories about getting your own back on rude customers, or, indeed, that you might see anything on stage which might perhaps cause any shock or offence. Not a whisper to the effect that this play might be anything out of the ordinary, or that it might provide a theatrical experience rather different from that of, say, Private Lives.

And who wrote this review? One Amy Watkins.

Well, all I can say is, she must be young.

Friday, May 26, 2006

End of the week

Here are a few stories and links which didn't fit in anywhere else this week.


Scoopt is a web site for photographers, especially those who carry a camera everywhere with the intention of taking a picture if anything happens that ought to be in the newspapers. Judging by some of the featured images, more or less anyone can take a newsworthy picture if they happen to have a camera in the right place at the right time. So Scoopt is an excellent idea, and although the 50/50 split of the income may look steep, I don't think that's out of line compared with other picture agencies. And in any case, if they have the contacts, they can sell where you couldn't even get in the door, so 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

Scoopt may, I understand, be going to launch an initiative connected with text. So keep looking. You might get rich and famous.

Thinking of running a bookshop?

Once upon a time, it was not completely ridiculous to imagine that, after retiring from a job in industry or the civil service, you might buy a small bookshop somewhere, and run that until you got really decrepit.

Well, you could still do that. But you're going to need a lot more courage, capital, and know-how than you once did.

For a good indication of the difficulties, read the Guardian's special two-part report on independent bookshops. (Link from


I read a blog a few days ago which said -- perhaps ironically -- that the announcement that Oprah Winfrey is to write a book about weight control was the story of the week. I beg to differ. It isn't a story at all. It's a complete non-event.

What this news does do, of course, is encapsulate the modern book trade in a couple of paragraphs. And, if you must read how Oprah has come to add (allegedly) a further $12 million plus to her vast fortune, the Guardian has some details. Of a sort. Pretty sloppy and superficial if you ask me.

Screenwriters' Festival

If you live in the UK, and you're interested in writing for TV or the screen (a more than usually foolish set of writing ambitions) then you probably should take a look at the programme for the International Screenwriters' Festival. One day of the programme is specifically devoted to new writers.

Sorry, but it makes me tired and depressed just to think about it. All that eager, optimistic youth assembled in one place. And 99.9% of it due to be bitterly frustrated and disappointed. At least if you write fiction you can publish your own.

Vin Doctor's Auntie lists

Vin Doctor is a writer who specialises in lists. Lists which he refers to as Auntie lists. Apparently it's a long story. Anyway, he's in search of an agent or publisher, so if you are one of those you might, just conceivably, wish to go take a look and see if there's a book there, because Vin thinks there is.

I have to say that this stuff is definitely not for me, but then I'm English and old. If I was 17 and American I would doubtless feel quite different. The Auntie lists reportedly appear on the Points in Case web site, which is clearly aimed at that audience. And it is, when all is said and done, a big audience.


Joel Biroco kindly wrote to tell me that he has read On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile and thought it was excellent, and he didn't even mention his own web site; he just added a link at the bottom of his email. Such modesty, I thought, deserves a reward, so I clicked on it.

Well, I have more than once mentioned here that the problem for writers is that, compared with musicians, it's very hard to make people go Wow! So, for what it's worth, I take my hat of to Joel's for making me go Wow!

The Wow! results mainly, I have to say, from the visual impact of the site rather than the content. And Wow! won't necessarily be everyone's reaction, because we all have our own taste in these things. But the Biroco web site strikes me as being one of the most beautifully designed that I have ever come across. It is just so elegant, and admirably suited to its content.

Once you get into this web site you discover that it deals with matters philosophical, occult, and perhaps religious, depending on your definition. The occult is a highly complex field, with a huge literature of its own, into which I have never dipped more than a toe. But there is enough on this site to give you a taste of what it involves. For a sample, download issue 14 of Kaos.

If you do get hooked on this stuff, it will take you for ever to read about it; you will come across, just by way of example, Dr Dee, Aleister Crowley, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a thousand other extraordinary offshoots. The Wikipedia entry on Occultism is a good place to start.

In addition to's basic content, it also features what is becoming a regular problem in life nowadays, i.e. an attempt to close down a web site which contains material that some people object to. In this case, which involved issue 14 of Kaos, the pathetically feeble ISP concerned was the British firm BT. Well, if you know BT you could hardly expect anything else really. Needless to say, Joel Biroco and his associates were able to work around BT.

There's a whole lot more, including an essay on web design featuring our old friend the Golden Section. All in all, this is, in every way, one of the most impressive web sites that I've ever seen. Though I have serious reservations about the bits in white text on a black background.

Robert Littell interview

Ali Karim pointed me to his lengthy interview with the espionage novelist Robert Littell. When I reviewed Littell's Legends, in July last year, I not only made the point that the book was about as good as you could ever reasonably expect a novel to be, but also that the author was a bit niggardly with the personal details. Well, thanks to Ali Karim we now know a great deal more about him.

The interview is a bit long to read onscreen, but you can print it out without difficulty: 25 pages. I'm glad that I did, because I found it a rewarding read, not merely in what it says about books and publishing, but in what this very well informed and much travelled man has to say about the history of the last 50 years. If you click on no other link from the GOB this week, I suggest that your time will be well spent in clicking on this one.

You looking at me?

Should you ever have cause to visit this fair isle of England, from somewhere overseas, you may, perchance, happen upon one of our beautifully mannered and incomparably educated young people -- a tattooed, acne-ridden, and denim-clad youth who scowls at you and mutters in barely comprehensible tones: You looking at me or chewing a brick?

If greeted in this time-honoured manner, you may, just conceivably, wonder what the fuck he is on about. In which case, dear Readers, hasten ye to the Urban dictionary, where all these quaint English expressions are translated for you.

In this case, what he means is: pretty soon you're getting a broken jaw, either because you're looking at me in a manner which I do not appreciate, or because you're chewing a brick.

Quite simple really. Of course, by the time you've logged on and worked it all out, the meaning of the young man's question may have become all too clear to you via a practical demonstration. But I can do nothing about that. Sorry.

Thanks to my daughter-in-law for this explication and link.

How the book business actually works, I

Book Expo America, as I believe I mentioned last week, is roughly the American equivalent of the Frankfurt and London book fairs. It is an occasion when anyone who's anyone in the book world gathers together in one place to do business and, er, other things.

Not everyone finds it a rewarding experience. In particular, authors can find it a bit daunting, as Booksquare explains (link from Galleycat). Independent publishers may also discover that they are up against some formidable, not to say incestuous, opposition. And this may lead to a distressing degree of cynicism. Witness this statement from Jennifer Nix (link from Maud Newton):

Book Expo, however, is primarily a ridiculous display of fawning and ass-kissing, a giant corporate junket courtesy of the massive marketing budgets at the Big Houses. It's the yearly gathering where corporate newspaper and magazine reporters wander through thousands of booths, like so many rock stars, saying and writing glowing items about their corporate-publisher-siblings' books. This process is facilitated by perky and usually blond publicists. Independent publishers are meant to pay the pricey admission just to watch, to stand on the sidelines and not get too familiar with the reporters and reviewers, because really, darling... if their books were any good at all, the Big Houses would have inked those deals.
How the book business actually works, II

Private Eye this week reports that there have been 12 positive reviews of Nicholas Coleridge's novel A Much-Married Man in the British press.

Of these, 4 appeared in magazines published by Nicholas Coleridge (he is managing director of Conde Nast); 3 were written for newspapers by former or current employees of Nicholas Coleridge; 2 were written by personal friends of Nicholas Coleridge; there were 0 negative reviews.

For an account of the Conde Nast connections, see the Observer's article of 19 December 2004.

Yet another attempt to silence criticism

On Monday we noted the attempt of lawyers Carter Ruck to silence criticism of their actions; and, in reference to Biroco, above, we noted an attempt to close down a site completely, when someone considered that it contained material contrary to their interests. Now there's a case involving AbsoluteWrite.

Well, I am a long way from believing that online writers should be allowed to say anything they wish -- whether true, reasonable, and sane or not -- but fortunately it is now the case that those who have truth and common sense as their allies are normally able to circumvent such attempts at censorship, albeit at the expense of time and money.

For a neat summary of what this new instance is all about, go to E.J. Knapp's blog, Only on Sunday. AbsoluteWrite, who have been the object of 'agent' Barbara Bauer's ire, are seeking a new home.

Miss Snark is hopping mad about this too, and you sure as hell wouldn't want to annoy her. In fact she's written about Barbara Bauer twice: the first time to say that she didn't like what the lady was up to, and the second time to give chapter and verse as to why she thinks the lady is a scam artist.

Words of wisdom

M J Rose is the writer who first recognised the power of the internet, and used it to make herself... well, not a household name, exactly, but certainly a published author with a decent track record. And on her blog Buzz, Balls & Hype (25 May), she has a short piece by her old high-school friend Elizabeth Benedict. Elizabeth writes about writers' ambitions, and refers to:
...that Big Fantasy that makes our pulses quicken: When I find myself slipping into the clutches of it, I remember the wise, cautionary words of Andrea Eagan, a dear friend -- to me and many writers -- who died at 51, in 1993. She was a wonderful journalist and a founder of the National Writers Union in the 1980s. I remember saying dreamily to her and her actor husband Richard, "When my ship comes in..." They interrupted me fast: "Forget about the ship. It will be a series of small dinghies that'll come your way."
Be nice

Fed up with everyone criticising publishers? Tired of gloom and doom? Want to hear someone stick up for the book business, which is, after all, populated by nice people? In that case nip over to Sara Gran's blog -- she has just the thing to perk you up. (Thanks to Maxine Clarke for the link.)


In addition to Buzz, Balls & Hype (mentioned above), M J Rose also runs Backstory, a site on which authors tell (usually) how they came to write their masterpiece and give it a gentle plug. M J recently handed over the day-to-day running of this blog to Jessica, who has more time available, and hence there is more new material on it, more often.

Sara Nelson on copyright

Sara Nelson, editor of US trade journal Publishers Weekly, offers a weekly editorial. This week's argues that copyright is a good thing and that it should last a hell of a long time.

Well, up to a point, Lady Copper. I have posted a partly dissenting comment, but most people seem to agree with her.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Predicting the future of the book trade

Publishers Lunch reports that, at Book Expo America last week, there was a general sense that change is in the air. That being the case, I thought it might be worth taking a look at the form that change might take -- at least as far as the book business is concerned.

Predicting the future is, as noted here not so long ago, a hazardous business. And nothing demonstrates this more clearly than looking back at past forecasts.

A few days ago I was poking around a junk shop and came across a book published in 1991 in the US and in 1992 in the UK. Title: The Great Reckoning: how the world will change in the depression of the 1990s. The authors were James Dale Davidson and (Lord) William Rees-Mogg.

Davidson is (or was then) a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, and a principal of Strategic Advisors Corporation in Baltimore. Rees-Mogg (still around) is a former editor of the Times, and is therefore as well informed and well connected as any man in England. Between them these two were as well placed as anyone reasonably could be to sniff the wind and decide how things were going.

As you can tell from the title of their book, Davidson and Rees-Mogg took the view that times were going to be hard in the 1990s. And evidently a lot of people were keen to read what they had to say, because the UK edition was reprinted five times.

I bought the book because I wanted to know what these two experts had to say about the impact of home computing in particular. It was in 1991 that I first acquired a primitive word processor, and shortly afterwards I got an office computer with a connection to the internet. But before we get into that, let's see how the two crystal-ball gazers got on with their more general socio-economic and political predictions.

Here are a few predictions which they got right, or mostly right:

  • Taxes will skyrocket.
  • Islam will replace Marxism as the main challenge in ideology.
  • Multinational countries, including the Soviet Union, will break apart.
And here are rather more which (unless I am being more than usually forgetful) they got wrong or mostly wrong:

  • The decade will see the first lowered prices since the 1930s.
  • There will be a property collapse including a fall in the value of the average American home by two thirds.
  • Drug use will be widely decriminalised.
  • There will be a major migration away from big cities.
  • There will be a repudiation of secular consumerism.
  • Unprecedented numbers of government employees will be fired.
  • Retirement will be postponed or even revoked for most people.
  • Terrorists or small nations will get nuclear weapons.
Not all that impressive really, is it? So, let's have a more detailed look at what they said about 'the information revolution', which is the title of their Chapter 2.

I was particularly interested to hear what Davidson and Rees-Mogg had to say about this, because of my personal circumstances. I am actually rather proud of my own foresight in this area, although it didn't do me or anyone else the slightest good. I have absolutely no background in science, having undergone the traditional British, highly specialised, form of arts education. But because I worked in a university I began to hear about developments in computing long before the average layman.

I was secretary, for instance, to a university computing committee, which was discussing ethernet connections and IBM clones many, many years ago. And as soon as I began to hear about the internet, and what it could do -- and even more so when I first became able to get on to it, which again was long before the average layman -- I understood instinctively that it was going to change everything. I didn't know how, and I certainly didn't predict lots of the wonders that we have today, but that it constituted a complete revolution I had no doubt whatever. And I was slightly ahead of most in that respect.

So what did Davidson and Rees-Mogg make of it?

Well, for a start, you will search the index of their 1991 book in vain for the word internet. And ditto email. But the authors did take the view that the computer-based information revolution constituted the third great revolution in human life, and they considered that it entailed an entirely new principle of human control over nature.

They were particularly intrigued by the possible development of nanotechnology, and they feared that the human will might be made to conform with the will of those who controlled that technology -- which is interesting, because that was a central concern of John Sundman's novel Acts of the Apostles, reviewed yesterday. But by and large Davidson and Rees-Mogg didn't have a clue about what we all now take for granted, namely broadband connections, email, online buying, and blogs. Not to mention all the ten thousand other uses of computers to enhance the capabilities of machines and services.

In other words, the lesson I draw from the Davidson/Rees Mogg book, which was written only about 16 years ago, is that it is well nigh impossible to make meaningful future forecasts. If, in 1990 or so, when they were gathering together their conclusions, these two could not even imagine the impact of digital developments, the rest of us have little chance.

None of which stops us trying, of course. And for what it's worth, Publishers Lunch carried some reports, as did many other blogs, of what the 'experts' at Book Expo America were thinking.

It was noted, for instance, that Microsoft have started inviting publishers to submit titles for scanning and indexing; this operation goes under the name of Windows Live Search/Windows Live. And it appears to be another version, shall we say, of the Google Print project, which has caused so much discussion and anxiety.

My guess: at the end of the next 15 years or so, we shall see the establishment of at least one online library which will give massive access to knowledge, in book form, on a scale hardly imagined so far -- even in the nightmares of the Authors Guild and similar organisations, which seems to regard the prospect as something similar to the return of the Black Death.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, told the assembled troops that the book business remains stuck in an old paradigm. Change will come, and resistance is futile. 'Everything I know about business and technology after 25 years tells me that businesses that resist technology inevitably fail.'

On a personal note, Fiorina referred to her own forthcoming book Tough Choices and commented that the time involved in writing a book and getting it into circulation is 'quite stunning.' And she added that it was 'horrifying' that she had to keep dealing with marked-up 'physical pieces of paper when I did the book electronically.'

Poor old Carly. She was probably dealing with people who've only just got to grips with email. (And yesterday I recommended to a friend that he should approach a leading UK agent, only to find that said agent's web site stated firmly that he does not -- absolutely not -- accept electronic submissions or email enquiries.)

The AP reporter at BEA, Hillel Italie, said that attendees fell into three groups: those anxious for change, those who accept it, and those who resist. John Updike was among the resisters, referring to the 'grisly scenario' of electronic books.

Chris Anderson was at the BEA, talking about the long tail. Perhaps more interesting now, since we already know a lot about the long tail, was his idea that beta testing of material through online drafts, presented for public comment, is essential if you are to polish a (non-fiction) book to the point where it will be a success.

Away from the BEA, Lynne Scanlon has some scathing (as usual) things to say about the present mind-set of publishers and makes some predictions of her own. E.g.

  • For the world at large, the digital Universal Library [as envisaged by Google, Microsoft, and others] will rescue long-neglected, long-lost, and long-forgotten books: that's good.
  • As a result of the impending business-model implosion, the inflexible, traditional publishing industry will be sidelined: that's their personal problem.
  • Authors will now have the opportunity to capitalize on having written a book, rather than being forced to rely exclusively on paltry royalties: that will be reward enough, and those rewards can be enormous.
  • As free online publishing spreads and The Universal Library grows, the author who writes a book with the primary goal of selling tens of thousands of copies is going to find a smaller and smaller paying audience. But writing books has its rewards, even if not one copy of the book is sold.
  • Perhaps ignoring the traditional publishing companies as they skip merrily along their own well-trod path to who knows where is the best approach.
  • Self-publish right now online, and reap some of those rewards that are just out there ready to be discovered.

Well that's bold, and brave. And so here's my own (entirely useless) prediction for today:

  • The book business will change, in ways which cannot now be foreseen. And when they do, we shall look back and see that they were obvious, and inevitable. If only we'd been paying attention.

G. K. Chesterton: The Club of Queer Trades

It was an English crime writer (Reginald Hill perhaps?) who made the point, a good many years ago, that if you spend half an hour or more wandering round a dusty old secondhand-book shop, it is only polite to leave clutching at least a battered paperback. Which is how I came to acquire a copy of G.K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades.

I was going to say that Chesterton is largely forgotten these days, but then I thought I'd better have a look to see if he is still in print, and I typed his name into Amazon. Result: 970 listings! His bestselling book being the Man Who Was Thursday. And The Club of Queer Trades comes in at no. 9, being republished by Dover in 1988.

OK, so he's not as forgotten as I thought. But actually that's not very surprising, when you think about it, because he's really very good.

As usual, Wikipedia provides a handy summary of his life, complete with the standard photo. Well, not quite standard, but all the images of him that you see, on the backs of books and so forth, seem to show him as a fat old man, rather grumpy in appearance. But in reality he must surely have been a good-humoured fellow, because it is said that his writings 'consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour'.

Born in 1874, Chesterton died in 1936. He wrote some 80 books, several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, 4,000 essays, and a stage play. Prolific, in other words. He was also a bit of a 'character' as we used to say in England. He was notoriously absent-minded, usually thinking about his next book, and on one occasion he sent his wife a telegram saying: 'Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?'

The Club of Queer Trades was first published in 1905, when Chesterton was about thirty, and the paperback that I bought was a Penguin edition of 1946. It's a short book, consisting, in effect, of six linked stories.

Within a very few pages you realise that you are in the hands of a master. The writing is witty, clever, and fun. The central pillar of the book is an absurd conceit: that there should exist, somewhere in London, a club which is made up of solely of men who have invented the method by which they make their living. Theirs must be an entirely new trade, not a mere variation on an existing business; and it must be a genuine source of sufficient income to support its inventor.

Hence we come to hear about (among others) the Professional Detainers. Suppose, for example, you wish to have dinner alone with a lady, but you know that she has invited two other gentlemen to dinner also. What could be more convenient than to hire two professional detainers, who will guarantee to detain, by entirely painless means, and without violence, the two other gentlemen whose presence is not desired.

And so on. Obviously, the whole book is based upon this flight of fancy, and credibility is not one of its strong features. But that doesn't matter, because it is obvious from the beginning that the book is simply an entertainment.

Despite its age, I found this book well worth the small sum that I paid for it.

As in the case of many another famous writer of the past, Chesterton fans have formed various societies and web sites to publicise the subject of their admiration. We have the American Chesterton Society; Gilbert, a magazine devoted to Chesterton's ideas, such as traditional morality and Christian orthodoxy; and Chesterton and Friends, a blog about the man and his works.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Say what you mean

Today's (London) Times provides a useful example of how a statement can mean something quite other than what it appears to mean.

A headline reads as follows:
Train graffiti paedophile gang are jailed for life
OK so far? Right. The report then goes on to say this:
Three paedophiles who were caught after a journalist replied to an obscene advert on a train lavatory door were jailed for life yesterday.
Right... Now then. You've read it, and you understand it. But hold. Lower down we get this:
Trevor Haddock, 55, the ringleader, who has been sexually abusing children for at least 20 years, will not be eligible for parole for at least 12 years. Ian Jones, 43, and Derek Moody, 44, were also given life sentences and will serve at least ten and four years respectively.
So. It seems that, in England, 'jailed for life' doesn't mean what it appears to mean. It means that you could be back on the streets in four years.

Please note that I make no comment here on the rights and wrongs of the case. I am simply commenting on the terminology involved.

Of course, as far as UK readers are concerned, there is nothing remotely new about hearing that a life sentence actually means a limited term. We're well used to that.

We're also used to that fact that, particularly in England, you always have to decode what people say to you. A senior civil servant once said to me: 'You have to remember that I come from a culture in which to say "I'm afraid I can't quite agree with you on that" means "I shall fight to the death to prevent you achieving your aims".'

And, I believe, the same is true of some other cultures. A friend of mine was trying to do business in Japan, and was really very encouraged by what his Japanese counterparts were saying to him. At least he was until a more experienced hand took him on one said and said, 'That means No.'

All of that having been said, it seems that there are some circumstances in which the Brits are, at last, beginning to feel it necessary to speak in plain English. Elsewhere in the Times this morning, we have an article by Alice Miles headed 'The madness of King Tony'.

In the course of this article, Ms Miles says:
I am a latecomer to the 'Blair is mad' theory, but I am beginning to see what it’s all about.... The Prime Minister sounds barking mad.... The Prime Minister has gone quite mad.'
Is that plain enough for you?

John F.X. Sundman: Acts of the Apostles

On 1 May of this year I mentioned the name of John F.X. Sundman, and said that I had read chapter 1 of his Acts of the Apostles online. I then took the liberty of suggesting how that first chapter might have been improved.

Well, I hereby apologise. In fact I grovel. I have now bought, with my own money, a copy of the entire book, and I'm glad I did. Having read it, I can tell you that this is a deeply impressive novel, especially as it seems to have been the author's first, and I can assure you that John Sundman needs no advice from me, or from anyone else, on how to construct an effective book.

I see from John's wetmachine web site that the print version of Acts of the Apostles was self-published, and that it won the Writers Digest National Self-published Book award in 2001. I'm not surprised.

If you want to categorise this novel, I would have to call it a science-fiction thriller. John is a very experienced software man, having been at one time the chair of the software development architecture team of Sun Microsystems, and he has won a couple of awards in the IT field. So it is obvious that he understands the digital world and has a good insight into other recent developments, e.g. in biotechnology. Furthermore, he can write. (In the acknowledgements he says that Joe Regal, the literary agent, taught him.) This is nearly always a formidable combination.

I am reluctant to go into too much detail on the plot. It's complicated, and plot summaries are always unsatisfactory. Let's just say that this novel is set in the mid 1990s, and that it concerns the use and abuse of technology. There are good guys and bad guys. One reader has said that the book is actually about Kaczynsky's Postulate: that technology and freedom cannot be reconciled. In this case, one group tries to advance technology -- specifically, nanotechnology -- in ways which will more or less eliminate freedom.

I have sometimes expressed the view that writers really shouldn't worry about how their work will be viewed in the future. Just making the bloody book work in the present is enough of a problem for most people. However, I have the very definite feeling that this is a book which will be read in 50 or 100 years from now, in the way that we now read books such as The War of the Worlds, 1984, and Brave New World. People will look at it and say -- see, that is what they were worried about at the end of the twentieth century. How quaint! Alternatively, they may read it and say How prescient! Let's hope it's the former.

From a reader's point of view there are a few difficulties. The principal characters are nearly all young and involved in IT or science, and it is sometimes an effort to keep track of who is who. But as you get to know them better this becomes less of a problem.

At page 218 I made the following note: This is a book that gets better as it goes along. It's only when you read a book like this that you realise what a feeble, runty thing the average thriller is.

And a few pages later: This is a rare fusion of science and, in the broadest sense, literature. It isn't commercial in the sense that Neal Stephenson is commercial (though even he has never had a big fat hit), but it's quality stuff.

As you stick with this book, it begins to be moving, in addition to gripping. And the ending is ironic, amusing, and sad. It's a formidable achievement.

This is a long book, in terms of wordage, and I would have been a more comfortable reader, visually, if the font had been larger and there had been fewer lines on the page. But then, of course, the page count, and the cost, would have gone up.

Not that it's terribly relevant, but is it my imagination, or is there, on page 305, an echo of James Joyce's short story The Dead? David Daiches, a professor of English at Cambridge in my time, once described the last paragraph of The Dead (in a lecture that I attended) as perhaps the best written piece of prose in the English language. Or words to that effect.

Acts of the Apostles isn't in that class. But it will do for now.

Oh, and by the way: the wetmachine web site contains an account of how Acts of the Apostles came to be written. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Perhaps you'd better read it before you embark on your own long-planned masterpiece.

Lulu enthusiasts

Following last Friday's mention of, a number of satisfied users of that company wrote in to say that they have no complaints, which I feel is a good sign. They also highlighted some interesting output.

Blogger Carla Nayland wrote as follows:

I recently put a book on Lulu [Ingeld's Daughter] and found it a remarkably painless process. You can make the same book available both as a printed copy (choice of several formats) and as a download if you wish. If you set the royalty to zero the download is automatically free and the printed copy is charged at Lulu's printing cost (a flat rate plus so much per page). This means that anyone who would like to read the item as a printed book or leaflet, instead of reading on screen or printing out a PDF, can buy a printed copy if they wish. Essentially they have the option of paying Lulu to print and ship a copy for them instead of printing it out themselves.

You can control as much or as little of the design as you choose. We designed our own front and back covers, but took Lulu's default layout for the contents, for example....

Lulu doesn't charge the author anything up front (unless you want them to list the book on Amazon for you). They take 20% of whatever royalty you set, but if the royalty is zero or if their share would come to less then 20 cents, they waive it. I presume they must also have a profit margin built into their per-page printing costs.

Carla's novel , by the way, runs to 572 pages.

Then there's Ron Morgans. He used Lulu for his thriller Kill Chase. He says that it takes a while to get to grips with the systems, but it's easy to correct your printing mistakes until your work is perfect -- then publish.

Ron is a former Fleet Street picture editor and on his own web site has stories about, and links to, some further info on famous press photographers. I particularly like Terry Fincher's pic of a British soldier making an arrest in Aden in 1967. If he did it that way today fourteen editorials would be written about human rights.

Finally, Matt Bell and Josh Maday used Lulu to publish a small collection from their micro-fiction blog, Dancing On Fly Ash: One Hundred Word Stories. They published the book under a Creative Commons licence, and are offering it as a free download from their website in addition to selling the print edition. They did all the cover art and layout themsleves, and say that they couldn't be happier with the book. Sales have been excellent, though they don't sell the book through Lulu. Instead they just ordered a print run and then sold them on their website. This generated higher royalties and faster despatch.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More MNW

Macmillan New Writing, the imprint which specialises in first novels by as yet unknown writers, is publishing books at the rate of one a month. Here are some notes on a couple of recent ones, the first published in May, and the second due on 7 July. (The June book was reviewed here on 25 April.)

Edward Charles: In the Shadow of Lady Jane

Edward Charles has written a historical novel, set in the mid sixteenth century. This is a period of English history which, in my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying. The ruling family of that era were the Tudors, and two of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, have been rich sources of material for novelists and dramatists -- particularly the latter. Just to give a couple of examples, Charles Laughton made a famous Henry VIII movie in 1933, and Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for her 1988 performance as Elizabeth.

Unfortunately, because of my extensive studies of the Tudor period, I know rather more about them than is good for me. My considered opinion of the Tudor monarchs, and particularly the hatchet-men who did their dirty work for them, is that they were a nasty, vicious, unprincipled lot, with little to recommend them. So, as far as this reader is concerned, Edward Charles has set himself a difficult task.

In the Shadow of Lady Jane is told in the first person by a young man of relatively modest background who finds himself in the service of the Grey family. In 1553, Henry VIII's sickly son, Edward, finally died, at the age of sixteen. A brief attempt was then made to proclaim Lady Jane Grey as Queen, and she held on to that title for nine days; but she was soon overthrown, and Henry VIII's elder daughter, Mary, was recognised as the lawful sovereign.

In other words, these were dangerous times, and a young man had to have his wits about him if his head was to remain attached to his body. Several of those involved in the Lady Jane Grey conspiracy were beheaded.

Edward Charles has a good solid story to tell, weaving fiction with fact, and he does it well. The book is written in a reasonably modern style, and the author has avoided, for the most part, the prithees and mayhaps which litter the pages of most historical novels. I would expect this book to do well in the library market, but I don't expect to see it on the bestseller lists, either hardback or paperback.

Aliya Whiteley: Three Things About Me

The principal virtue of Three Things About Me is that, despite the title, it's quite different from the average first novel -- which is normally all about Me Me Me. And perhaps that's because this isn't the author's first novel: Aliya has her own web site, on which we learn that she is the author of Mean Mode Median, published by Bluechrome in 2004. (Having work published in the past does not rule you out as a potential MNW author.)

Three Things is about seven young(ish) hopefuls who are just starting a company training course which is designed to turn them into 'customer service representatives'. The man in charge of the course is Rob Church, whose boss warns him at the outset that the level of applicants is extremely poor.

Each chapter of the book is related from the viewpoint of one of the trainees, or Rob himself. This makes for quite a number of people to keep track of -- perhaps rather too many, but the reader gradually gets to know them.

I was just wondering if it was fair to describe the characters as losers when I noticed that that's exactly what the publisher's blurb says about them. 'Each of [Rob's] charges, with one exception, is a loser. As he works his way through the embarrassingly formulaic training set-pieces with never a doubt about the value of his corporate objectives, the awful reality of the appalling quality of the human material he has to work with becomes clear.'

And, er, that's about it. I can't classify this book for you -- not easily, anyway -- because I don't think it fits neatly into any particular genre. It certainly isn't science fiction, fantasy, crime, or romance. I wouldn't call it literary. Neither is it chick-lit. Or lad-lit. It's a piece of mainstream fiction about a group of (mostly) 20- and 30-somethings. And that is where it's readership lies: mainly female, I suspect, and among those who have had similar experiences, and probably wish they hadn't.

This is a perfectly competent novel, but, given the nature of the competition, and the MNW publicity budget, it is not, in my opinion, going to generate huge sales.

Geoff Ryman: Air

Every so often I come across a book that I ought, in principle, to like. But somehow I don't. And this is the way it was with Geoff Ryman's Air.

Air is a work of science fiction. Which means, oddly enough, that it has its feet on the ground. SF books do not, by and large, have the kind of pretensions which one has, regrettably, come to expect from literary works. And, furthermore, Air has won wide recognition as an excellent example of its genre: the book has won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award; it was on the short list for the Nebula Award. Despite all that, I couldn't take to it.

The central character in the novel is Mae, a middle-aged woman who is living in Karzistan; her home is in 'the last village in the world to go online'. Here's the publisher's description of what happens:
When the UN decides to test the radical new technology Air, Mae is boiling laundry and chatting with elderly Mrs Tung. The massive surge of Air energy swamps them, and when the test is finished, Mrs Tung is dead, and Mae has absorbed her 90 years of memories. Rocked by the unexpected deaths and disorientation, the UN delays fully implementing Air, but Mae sees at once that her way of life is ending. Half-mad, struggling with information overload, the resentment of much of the village, and a complex family situation, she works fiercely to learn what she needs to ride the tiger of change.
In other words, what we have here is a thoughtful, intelligent, and well written novel about the impact of technology, and how to remain human though wired. Air is absolutely relevant to our age, and has nothing whatever wrong with it technically. It just turned out to be a novel that I didn't want to read.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Odds and ends

Friday and the weekend brought a great number of booky things to my attention, and, being easily bored, and definitely unemployable these days, I had nothing better to do than refer to them here. Please be aware, however, that although there is much here that is trivial and inconsequential, there are other things that aren't. A bit like life in general.

The Word Detective

My daughter-in-law pointed me to The Word Detective, a web site dealing in words and language. It discusses the kind of issue that Jeanette Winterson touched on in her Times column last week, such as giving up the goat. You can, if you wish, subscribe to the full service, for $15 a year I believe, but there's quite a lot of free info.

Just as a test, I looked up what the Word Detective has to say about gender-free pronouns (see the Epicene Epic). Somewhat to my surprise, I found a discourse which was both scholarly and amusing. The gist of it:

"Every doctor should have their own pager" is correct.... Consider three points.

First, the use of the normally plural "their" to refer to a singular noun ("doctor" in this case) was common in English until the late 18th century. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw, among other literary luminaries, all used this construction. It was only when self-appointed Victorian grammar reformers decided very late in the game that English should be modeled on the structure of classical Latin that the "singular their" was banned.

Secondly, as explained by linguist Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct" (HarperCollins, 1994), "doctor" and "their" in our sample sentence aren't really an antecedent noun and its pronoun -- they are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," respectively, and don't have to agree in number. Pinker's explanation of the difference is lucid, fascinating, and much too long to go into here, so go buy the book. Yes, it's in paperback.

Lastly, there simply is no other solution acceptable to the vast numbers of people who actually speak the English language. The re-emergence of this use of "their" is natural, logical, and confuses no one. It is not sloppiness and it is not ignorance. It is a positive example of our language evolving to encompass a new social awareness, in this case the somewhat belated recognition that not everyone enjoys being referred to as "him."

To get that sort of thing on a regular basis, it might even be worth paying $15 a year.

Now Homer is really cross

While I'm on the subject of obscure grammatical niceties, here's some detective work cum scholarly research that I did recently.

The Times, when borrowing from The Simpsons and quoting Homer's annoyed grunt, writes it as 'Doh!' As in Mary Ann Sieghart's column, 18 May: 'Two recent news items contend for my newly instituted Doh! prize.'

However, I was pretty sure that I had more than once seen this annoyed grunt written as D'oh! So I went looking. Sure enough, the official Simpson version is D'oh! See the learned article on Wikipedia, which gives the origin of the expression and shows two screenshots to confirm the spelling.

The Oxford Dictionary authorities have also recognised that this expression needs to be included. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, tenth edition, 2001, lists doh as an informal exclamation, 'used to comment on a foolish action', without any indication of its source. However, press reports from 2001 indicate that the new entry in the online version of the Oxford dictionary was definitely related to Homer. See, for instance, the CNN report, and the BBC report.

As a further however, however, if you do read those two press reports, which are presumably based on the same Oxford press release, you will see that the BBC spells the magic word D'oh!, while CNN spells it Doh! (As does the Times, mentioned above.)

I can't actually find an access point to the Oxford online service, which is available to subscribers only. And as this is clearly a major point of scholarship, I turned to that outstanding authority on the use of the English language in American newspapers, namely The Slot. Here I entered D'oh into the search facility, and found that the boss man, Bill Walsh himself, has used the expression. Which, coupled with the evidence of Simpson screen shots on Wikipedia, is good enough for me.

In the 1950s, the question of whether to use Hapsburg or Habsburg was considered a major test of scholarship. And I am now inclined to take the same view about D'oh! Variants are employed at your own peril.

It is clear, from the above, that both the Times and CNN have got this all wrong, and someone definitely ought to write and tell them so. But it won't be me because I'm far too busy to get involved in such trivial matters.

Computers have more sense than people -- in this case, a lot more

Mark Rayner -- author of The Mozart Net, in which Wolfgang Amadeus gets his sprouter snipped off (look, I just report this stuff, I don't make it up, OK?) -- has kindly pointed me to an article in The Onion.

The Onion reports how 'a courageous young notebook computer [based at Brandeis University] committed a fatal, self-inflicted execution error late Sunday night, selflessly giving its own life so that professors, academic advisors, classmates, and even future generations of college students would never have to read Jill Samoskevich's 227-page master's thesis.'

When you discover that Samoskevich's thesis was entitled A Hermeneutical Exploration Of Onomatopoeia In The Works Of William Carlos Williams As It May Or May Not Relate To Post-Agrarian Appalachia, you begin to understand the full horror of what the computer had to cope with, and its suicide becomes entirely understandable.

In recognition of this noble act, faculty and staff of the Brandeis English Department will gather at the Brandeis IT center Friday to honor the computer (a Dell Inspiron) with a Purple Hard Drive, an award which is traditionally given to computers that die at least 100 pages into a dangerously boring thesis.

Oh yes. All of which proves, as I said in the heading, that computers have a great deal more sense than humans.

If only, dear Readers, if only I could bring myself to believe that there aren't actually quite a lot of Eng Lit grad students who are working, right this minute, on theses which are at least twice as silly and twice as useless as Jill Samoskevich's, what a happy man I would be.

Nightcap Syndication

Tim Worstall is a blogger, economist and writer who is good enough to get articles in the Times now and then. He also edited 2005: Blogged, to which the GOB contributed, and is therefore by definition a Good Chap. (Sales so far 3,414, by the way. Not at all bad, in my view, but Tim seems disappointed.)

Tim is one of many who have remarked on the vagaries of getting reviews posted on Amazon, so he and some mates have decided to do something about it. The result, still in beta, is Nightcap Syndication.

Tim says this:

Anyone and everyone is free to submit a review on any subject or object they desire. Authors can (if they identify themselves) review their own works. We would very much like people to add in a link to Amazon (or anywhere else they desire) so that if someone does indeed purchase then the reviewer gains something. So we're asking that links go to the reviewer's commission account, not ours.

We don't expect people to necessarily write new reviews: something that has been posted elsewhere is fine. In fact, we assume that most entries on the site as a whole (reviews being only one part of it) will actually be blog posts from elsewhere that are simply cross posted. Links back to home blogs and all that sort of stuff very much encouraged.

More re those lists

C E Petit, Esq., m'learned friend who runs the Scrivener's Error blog, tells me that he too has serious doubts about the NYT choice of the best novels of the last 25 years. Even more pertinently, he adds:

I find it interesting that advances in the sciences and advances in the arts tend to be made not by the "avant garde," but by the classically trained artist (literature, film, music, painting, whatever) who brings the rigor and skills of classical training away from the constipation of the classical repertoire. In US letters, anyway, speculative fiction is getting more and more under-the-table influence on high-end literature, although both communities threaten to the death anyone who points that out.
I agree with this diagnosis. And it has not gone unnoticed by others. Dave Langford, in his monthly Ansible newsletter, regularly points out that many writers, publishers, and critics, would rather have their right hand chopped off than admit that they have anything to do with science fiction. Consider, for instance, this nonsense, reported in Ansible 225:

Mariella Frostrup interviewed Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame on BBC Radio 4's Open Book, about the new Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes [by Ray Bradbury]. Jimi Fallows reports: 'Harris kicked off by expressing regret that SWTWC was being printed under the fantasy label, as it is much closer in content to real fiction.... The fantastical element of Bradbury's work was discussed with much earnestness to protect his reputation as an author, culminating in this devastating aside from Frostrup: "Some people even refer to him as a science fiction author, however erroneous that may be." It's still available to listen on line, and well worth it for the particular emphasis of disdain that Mariella lavishes on the sf word.'
Fortunately, there are honorable exceptions to this foolishness: and Margaret Atwood is definitely one.

Oh, the perils of libel

Perusal of Scrivener's Error led me to notice his comments on a report on Miss Snark's blog. Seems there was some aggrieved party who published a book via AuthorHouse which seriously bad-mouthed his ex-wife, who was the romance writer Rebecca Brandewyne, no less. Brandewyne sued, and, not surprisingly in the described circumstances, won handsomely.

Moral: don't try to get your own back on an ex-wife, or anyone else, by writing a book. Not even if you disguise it as a novel. It could cost a great deal of money.

So far there are 37 comments on Miss Snark's piece.


Speaking of libel, as we just were, the name Carter-Ruck is one which will produce a shiver down the spine of most UK publishers and newspaper editors. The man himself, Peter Carter-Ruck, is safely dead now, but he was not much loved or admired when he was alive. He was a famous English libel lawyer, very quick with a writ, and the source of many a problem for those who write. A couple of years ago I wrote a review of his memoirs, and noted that even his obituarists (normally a very polite bunch) were brutally frank about his shortcomings.

Well, Carter-Ruck's firm continues under the famous name, and it continues, it seems, to be quick with a writ, particularly when defending its own name. On Mabatha News Network, Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher describes a case in which Carter-Ruck are taking objection to comments made on the internet.

Dr Bleher sees the Carter-Ruck action as over-sensitive and, moreover, as an attack on the freedom of speech -- one which, in principle, poses a threat to the internet.

Well, these issues are certainly worth thinking about. They are not simple, even in theory, and in practice are severely complicated by variations in the law from country to country. English law is particularly harsh in relation to libel, and this has given rise to a phenomenon known as libel tourism.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the latest case, highlighted by Dr Bleher, it is certainly true that those with enough money to pay for the likes of Carter-Ruck can make life very difficult for anyone who wishes to criticise them. As the investigative journalist Craig Unger remarked, 'They don't have to win, just tie you up in court forever.'

WanderingScribe doubters

My note last week about the WanderingScribe blog has attracted a number of commenters, some of whom are as doubtful about the enterprise as I was. And one person has gone so far as to set up a whole new blog -- The Truth about WanderingScribe --- which expresses, shall we say, severe reservations about the reliability and veracity of what is on offer.

A blog about a blog? Is this a first? Probably not, but I can't think of another one.

Golden Rule Jones

Golden Rule Jones, a book blogger of considerable age (in blog terms) and standing, has moved. The link on the blogroll has been changed, and he's now on Typepad. Mr Jones is English-born and Chicago-based, and he's still putting out some interesting stuff. Not surprising, considering that he once played Rugby for Leeds and had a verse play produced; not many people pull off that combination.


Would you be surprised to hear that a woman who presents herself at various times as an agent and publisher is actually a convicted fugitive felon? What do you mean, No of course not? Have you no faith in human nature? Details on the Scamhunters blog; and a lot more on Absolutewrite.

The Captain's (b)log

Captain Picard, of the Starship Enterprise, has been writing an online version of his log for over a year now, and I've only just noticed (link from Blogger Buzz). Quite how such an important online resource escaped my notice is a mystery. The latest entry reveals that a vital part of the engineering of the Enterprise has broken down: it's the laundry machine.

How the music industry got it all wrong

The fact that the music industry made just about every mistake that you could think of, when dealing with the internet phenomenon, is a point which has often been made. However, last Friday's BBC Money Programme produced a valuable half-hour summary of the whole sorry mess, complete with an update on how UK bands are finding fans without benefit of major companies in the middle. I for one found it enthralling.

You can read about the programme here, and the programme itself claimed that you would also be able to watch it online, but I can't discover how. You may be cleverer.

The only problem is, how can this knowledge/experience of what happened, and is happening, in the music business be transferred to the world of fiction? Or non-fiction, for that matter. T'ain't easy to see how it might happen, since the main problem is to produce something which makes listeners/readers go Wow! And making readers go Wow! just seems to be harder than doing it for listeners.

Friday, May 19, 2006

David Allen: Getting Things Done

David Allen's how-to book Getting Things Done addresses what might reasonably be called the key problem of our age. This problem goes by a variety of names: stress, pressure, overload; and it is, essentially, a general feeling of panic, dread, and loss of control which arises from the belief that we have too much to do and too little time to do it.

The sense of all-pervading pressure is something which these days is experienced from schooldays onwards. And I can testify, oddly enough, that it does not disappear even when you retire. Its effects are extremely damaging, and most of us will be able to think of someone whose health, mental or physical or both, has deteriorated under the strain. And so anyone who can offer a means of reducing that sense of stress is both providing a valuable social service and, potentially, is in possession of a valuable source of income.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Getting Things Done has sold well. First published (in the UK) in 2001, it has been reprinted nine times, which demonstrates that there are people out there who are desperate for help in organising their lives and in reducing that sense of pressure. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book is not itself as well organised and helpful as it might be. Judging by the comments of those he has helped, on a personal basis, David Allen is something of a dab hand at seminars and one-to-one sessions. But he is not the world's best writer.

Briefly put, Allen's recipe for achieving peace of mind and a restored sense of control involves reviewing your entire life, both personal and professional, and writing down everything that you feel you need to do or hope to do. You then process these notes: in particular you decide on the desired outcome of any particular 'job to do', and on the next action that is needed to achieve whatever it is you need to do. And then you proceed from there. Allen claims that regular reference to these notes, plus the use of such obvious devices as a calendar (which in England we normally call a diary), a 'tickler' file, and so forth, will restore at least a semblance of calm; in many instances, he claims, his system greatly increases productivity.

Obviously my summary is a gross oversimplification of a 258-page book, but that's the gist of it. Allen argues that what is really destructive of mental and physical health is the dread that something has been overlooked and forgotten. And he believes that if everything that needs to be done is written down in the control system somewhere, where it can be regularly reviewed and, if necessary, action taken, then that dread is abated. The average individual, he believes, will find that they have 300 to 500 hours' worth of things to do even if the world stopped right now and nothing new was added. So obviously everything cannot be done at once. The trick is to dump some ideas, delegate or defer others, and pick out the priorities in what remains.

Well, I agree with the overall prescription. Such a system works. As it happens, I was doing 95% of what Allen recommends already, having developed my own system of control over the years. I have to say that my system -- which is very similar to my namesake's (though he is no relation) -- enabled me to complete (when I look back on it) a vast amount of work during my lifetime as an employee. On top of that, it enabled me to commit a small but regular amount of time to writing (see my essay on productivity). Furthermore, I still use the system today, in retirement, and Allen's book gave me some useful tips on how to refine my own arrangements.

I am unconvinced, however, that a panic-stricken middle manager, trying and failing to juggle commuting, family life, and ever-increasing demands on his time and energies from his employer, is going to find this book immediately helpful. He would have to read it twice, I feel, to get the hang of what Allen is on about. And even then I doubt whether everything would be entirely clear.

In my experience, few individuals are more in need of a good time-management and self-organisation system than those who are trying to write a book on top of everything else. And that is why I have stated, on this blog and elsewhere, over and over again, that writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health -- not to mention your relationships, your bank account, and your career prospects. It is not a burden to be taken on lightly, though many people plunge into it with cheerful abandon.

In dealing with that problem, Allen's book can certainly help. But in my view Getting Things Done would benefit from a complete rewrite, from the ground up. It should be shorter, crisper, clearer, and, curiously enough, more prescriptive. As it stands, Allen gives you leeway to decide for yourself, for example, whether your system should be paper-based or computer-based. And in the early stages that is not very helpful. The book is five years old now anyway, so a new version is overdue.

One book that Allen (or his new ghost writer) could study with advantage is Jean Marie Stine's Writing Successful Self-Help and How-To Books. Stine has edited over 50 self-help titles, including some big sellers such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and Women Who Love Too Much, so she knows whereof she speaks. And just one glance at the mere layout of Stine's book will give one clue as to how Getting Things Done could be improved.

David Allen has a web site, which offers a variety of free stuff and also (naturally) stuff that you can buy. I'm afraid I didn't take to it at all.

Everything that Allen has to offer, in the book and on the web site, is potentially enormously valuable. And clearly he has converts and enthusiasts. But in my opinion he hasn't yet found the best way of getting his message across.