Friday, June 30, 2006

Laurell K. Hamilton and Anita Blake

Just poking around on the internet, as one does, I was led by a link from Bookslut to a blog on the Powell's web site (Powell's being, it seems, a major player among US-based online book dealers; and they seem to be, as Foyles once was, in two minds as to whether they have an apostrophe or not).

In a post about new releases (28 June), the Powell's blogger Brockman makes mention, just in passing, and without highlighting it as anything out of the ordinary, of the fact that this month sees the publication in hardback of the 14th novel in a series by Laurell K. Hamilton.

The series features Anita Blake, vampire hunter, and in this one the amorous Ms. Blake discovers that werewolves and vampires are nothing compared to the horror of pregnancy.

Now I must say that that throwaway four-line plug for book number 14 rather hit me in the eye. I think I'd vaguely heard of Laurell K. Hamilton (an American writer, by the way), but fourteen novels in hardback? About a vampire hunter? OK, you know, and I know, that the hardbacks are often intended for library consumption, for the good and simple reason that they last longer. But in this day and age to persuade a publisher to back you for 14 in a row seems to me to be a considerable achievement.

So I went looking for information. I started, as one does, with Fantasticfiction. I'm not sure who runs that site, or how they make any money out of it, but it's a very useful resource, if a trifle garish in its design. Anyway, they give Laurell K. Hamilton five stars. There's a photo which proves that she ain't bad looking either. (I know, I know; sexist; don't bother to write in.)

The Anita Blake series started in 1993, with Guilty Pleasures. And that first book must be pretty good, because it was reissued in 2002, also issued in a special library binding in 2003, and reprinted in a large-print edition in 2004. There are also several different paperback versions in both the US and the UK (I wonder who gets to sell them in Europe, heh heh heh).

As you would expect, Laurell K. has her own web site, and very professional it is too. This reveals that, after 14 books, the Anita Blake heroine has a substantial following. There is, to begin with, an Anita Blake web ring, with 52 active sites listed; these cover numerous different aspects of the Anita Blake universe (aka Anitaverse). You will also discover that Anita has fans on active duty in Iraq. And there are pictures of fans at signings.

OK, so I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that vampire fiction doesn't win any prestigious prizes. And I can positively feel your lip curling.

But hey -- to quote Our Beloved Leader -- before you get too damn sniffy abou it, just remember a couple of things.

First, it never hurts to give people a little harmless pleasure in this world. And if you you can do it through a series of 14 books, plus a few others on the side, and make a living in the process, so much the better.

Second, may I remind you of a point made elsewhere on this blog, namely that it is a fundamental error, with moral implications, to think of fiction as a hierarchy, a sort of tower block, if you will, with literary fiction at the top and the 'lower' types of fiction tucked away in the basement. That is a concept which has no intellectual validity.

The correct way to think of the various genres of fiction is as a street of many bookshops; and in this street there are no prime sites. Each shop pays the same business taxes as any other: all shops are equal. And the smart customer places her business in different shops at different times; to the advantage of everyone, most importantly herself.

To continue from yesterday's little nonsense: if there is one person this week who has proved that she can hack it at the highest level, it is Laurell K. Hamilton.

Bob Garfield on the new marketing model

Bob Garfield, writing on the Advertising Age site, tells us that over the next 18 months he is going to be writing a book online. (Link from Publishers Lunch.) This, he says, will be no wiki: 'I'm the sole author. And it will be owned lock, stock and hypertext by my employer, Crain Communications. But who cares? It's being produced in full public view for public view.'

Here are the outlines of a couple of chapters which suggest to me that the book will be essential reading for those who feel that the old publishing model is sick unto death and is going to be replaced by some disintermediated new thing:

1) Say it Ain't So, Status Quo: The context for epochal changes is a complete breakdown in the media-marketing model and the ascendance of the internet. All of this explained.

12) Aggregation Nation. It has always seemed like a chicken-and-egg proposition. When the mass-media model collapses, where will the content come from? Who will pay to create programming without the guaranteed payoff from ad-supported media? Answer: clever aggregators will gather meta data from the online universe and serve up what the public finds most engaging.

Book deals 2005

I have the impression that quite a lot of the people who read this blog are writers who are in search of an agent or a publisher. Other readers, I know, actually are agents and publishers. Well, I hesitate to mention this (you'll see why in a minute) but there is a new book out which will certainly be of value to as-yet-unpublished writers, and may well be equally if not more valuable to agents and publishers who are looking to sell rights.

Published by Publishers Marketplace, and entitled Book Deals 2005, the book is a summary of 'over 3,500 US deals from last year in a single oversized 300-page volume, organizing them and indexing them to provide at-a-glance and in-depth windows on the deal world that you can't get from electronic searching.' In other words, you get to know who is buying what and (within broad bands) how much they are paying.

The snag is that the volume costs $125. On the other hand... one sale would more than cover it. If you want to take a look, it's on the Publishers Marketplace web site. There are links to sample pages. And it's worth noting that, if you subscribe to the Publishers Lunch newsletter (more or less daily), you get the latest deal information delivered on a weekly basis.

One interesting (and possibly encouraging, provided you put it in perspective) piece of information is that 14% of all fiction sales were for six figures or more.

Juicing it up

Jamba Juice is an American company, selling so-called health drinks, and it is currently expanding rapidly. Unfortunately, not everyone is enthusiastic about the benefits of Jamba Juice. Here's what Chris Ayres reports from LA, in the London Times:
As far as I’m concerned, Jamba is all hot air. Its drinks may be nutritious (and delicious, even), but they are not necessarily healthy. Indeed, for a terminally fat country, Jamba’s promise to “provide everything you need to live an active, healthy and happy life!” borders on a dangerous con.
So, when I receive an email from a book publicist, telling me that Jamba Juice has linked up with a publisher to plug a book called Secrets of Longevity, subtitled 'Hundreds of ways to live to be a hundred', I am, well, just a tad dubious.

Should you be eager to know more, however, I can tell you that the book's author, Dr. Maoshing Ni (known to his patients as Dr Mao -- and why does that make me nervous?), shares the secrets gleaned from 38-generations of medical knowledge in his family, and a 20-year study of centenarians in China.

It turns out that 'a longer, healthier and happier life is not a result of a complicated supplement regimen, arcane dietary restrictions or any particular exercise, rather it is a combination of simple approaches to all areas of life.'

The book is published by Chronicle Books. There's a video clip, which doesn't work on my computer. And there's a podcast; but when I clicked on the link it gave me Ronald Reagan's daughter talking about her cats.

A good try, but not an altogether convincing sales pitch.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quotes of the week

1. Boris Wertz

'The publishing industry is one of those rare businesses where the producers very rarely listen to consumers.' Boris Wertz, operating chief at Abebooks.

Link from Galleycat in a discussion of LibraryThing, which you might wish to check out for yourself. Start with the article in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps; though it contains a distressing number of typos for a leading newspaper. Or you might want to go straight to LibraryThing itself.

At first sight LibraryThing seems to be another Who Writes Like, which I mentioned the other day. And it's not, says the founder, a dating agency.

I used to catalogue all my books at one time. But then I grew up.

2. Jason Pinter

'That’s why it’s easier for Iowa MFAs who’ve published in Glimmer Train to get agents and book deals. They’ve proven they can hack it at the highest levels.' Jason Pinter on Buzz Balls & Hype.

Doing an Iowa MFA and appearing in Glimmer Train proves you can hack it at the highest level? No wonder the book business is in trouble.

Glimmer Train -- of which I had not previously heard, and of which I do not particularly wish to hear again; ever -- turns out to be, to no one's surprise, yet another small literary magazine. It offers a newsletter for 'serious writers' (which usually means those who take themselves terribly seriously and consider it an insult if others fail to accept them at their own valuation; not the most mature of attitudes).

Thanks, but I think I'll stick to Victorian pornography.

3. Dan Franklin

'So, as I am constantly telling the editors who work for me, one of their key tasks - as well as editing text - is to sell their books in the internal market. It's their job to enthuse sales and marketing, the people to whom the booksellers will listen.' Dan Franklin, publishing director of Jonathan Cape.

Dan Franklin I regard as a sound man, by and large, and he had an article in the Sunday Telegraph (link from describing two rather different publishing editors. One was the hands-on backroom boy, John Blackwell, and the other was Tom Maschler.

Blackwell was the very old-fashioned type of editor who actually read books, and extremely closely at that: on one occasion he rang Louis de Bernieres and told him that, in describing the suspension of an Italian jeep he had got it all wrong. For the most part, he stayed in his small office.

Maschler, by contrast, was an outgoing, gregarious sort, and a natural salesman. But neither man, Franklin reckons, constitutes a suitable model for today. In the current market, an editor needs to be a mixture of both.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Victorian pornography -- Part 1: the background

Some time ago, when discussing John Preston's My Life as a Pornographer, I said that I wasn't actually interested in modern gay porn, in itself, but that, if anyone cared, I was interested in Victorian heterosexual pornography. Whereupon, Konrad West wrote in and said that I would have to write a piece about that, then, wouldn't I? Heh heh heh.

Well yes. Indeed. But Victorian pornography is a rather large subject, so we are going to need several attempts at it, and even then we shall only explore the outer suburbs, so to speak. And to begin with, we had better lay down a few ground rules and definitions.

First, the term Victorian. The adjective is derived from the name of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, and all the rest of it, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. This is an exceptionally long period of time in human terms, and makes her England's longest-serving monarch. So for our purposes the Victorians will be regarded as the English men and women who lived during Victoria's reign.

Next pornography. Well, pick your own definition, from the dictionary if you must. But John Preston, whose book prompted the request for this series of posts, thought of gay pornography as written work which was designed to give gay men an erection; plus, if possible, an irresistible urge to masturbate.

This is not a particularly elegant or tasteful definition, but it's not a bad one. So pornography in general, as opposed to the gay sort, may reasonably be defined, and will be defined for the purposes of this discussion, as written work which is designed to arouse lust. Usually in the male, because there are good reasons for supposing that Victorian porn was read principally by men; but not exclusively so. If it arouses lust in females too, or instead, I don't suppose many men would object.

In any discussion of Victorian pornography we also need to consider the prevailing morality of the Victorian era. And here we come up against a curious paradox. On the one hand it is absolutely undeniable that the Victorians have a well established and long-standing reputation for prudery, and on the other hand we have equally undeniable evidence that, in certain respects, they were markedly uninhibited and in sexual matters often enjoyed a free-for-all which might have shocked a 1960s hippie.

Let us take the established reputation for starters. Type "Victorian prudery" into Google and you get 11,700 hits, which is enough, I think, to make the point. The Concise Oxford Dictionary says that Victorian means 'relating to the attitudes and values associated with this period, especially those of prudishness and high moral tone.'

Historians will doubtless point out that these attitudes were far from new: if anything they were more pronounced during the Puritan ascendancy in the seventeenth century. But for our purposes, all we need to note is that, in Victorian times, there was an almost total ban on any sort of written description of sexual passion or sexual acts. This ban was imposed both by the force of the law and in other ways by those who favoured reticence on these matters.

In particular, this ban on sexual descriptions and references applied to fiction. And it applied to fiction, as indicated above, both because the law enabled descriptions of sexual acts to be prosecuted and punished by long terms of imprisonment, and because those who largely controlled the commercial side of orthodox publishing chose to eliminate almost anything remotely sexual from the marketplace.

First, the law. From 1802 onwards, there existed a Society for the Suppression of Vice, which dedicated itself, among other noble aims, to the elimination of obscene books, prints, et cetera, not to mention snuffboxes, which often had 'indecent and obscene engravings, highly finished', inside the lid and which enjoyed, it seems, 'a large and ready market in Boarding Schools for Young Ladies.' Ah yes, the young ladies. You just can't trust 'em, you see.

In 1856, for example, the Vice Society, as it became known, pounced on the publishers of a magazine called Paul Pry. Mr Robert Martin, publisher, and Mr William Strange, distributor, were both sent to jail for selling an obscene publication: the offending article was a graphic account of the seduction of a servant girl by a Mr Filthy Lucre.

The case was tried before the Lord Chief Justice, and his Lordship expressed himself deeply shocked that the magazine should be sold for one penny. Selling these things at a high cost was, he implied, not nearly such a serious offence; but to sell them cheap...

In 1857, the Society and those who supported it were much heartened by the introduction of the Obscene Publications Act, which was designed to destroy the pornography trade, then centred on Holywell Street.

By 1872, the Society was able to report that within the last two years it had 'been the means of bringing to punishment, by imprisonment, hard labour, and fines, upwards of forty of the most notorious dealers, and within a few years has seized and destroyed the following enormous mass of corrupting matters : 140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills ; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates ; 480 lithographic stones ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description.'

They were nothing if not keen, those chaps.

Above all, however, the forces of prudery were led by two men who dominated the commercial publication of fiction: a Mr Smith and a Mr Mudie. The two men, described by one historian as 'hymn-bawling Nonconformists', were proprietors of the two most successful commercial lending libraries; and the libraries were huge buyers of fiction.

Publishers soon learnt that it paid to give very close attention to what Mr Smith (yea, verily, founder of the W.H. Smith chain) and Mr Mudie wanted. And what they wanted was, first and foremost, no sex; Mr Mudie was anxious to ensure that nothing available through his library could possible offend a sensitive young woman. Secondly, Smith and Mudie wanted long books, in three instalments, which would require the reader to pay three fees instead of one to find out what happened to their favourite characters.

This double whammy -- draconian law coupled with the power of commerce -- combined to ensure that Victorian men and women were unable (at least legally) to read fiction which in any way touched upon sexual reality. Any allusions to sex, love, marriage, childbirth and the like, had to be so sanitised as to be entirely incomprehensible to anyone who did not already know the facts of life. And it is very largely those bowdlerised novels which give us our picture of Victorian society today.

Hence we think of the Victorians as prudes. In actual fact, they were just as randy as the English folk of any other era; perhaps more so, because of the forbidden nature of much run of the mill entertainment and humour.

The list of works captured and destroyed by the Vice Society demonstrates that pornography was in ample supply. William Dugdale, perhaps the most active publisher, was imprisoned nine times (and eventually died in prison), but when free was indefatigable; he made sure to visit Oxford and Cambridge at least twice a year. His close rival was a Mr Edward Duncombe, who had six convictions. But the profits were so substantial that these men were not deterred.

Every other sort of sexual material and service was also in demand in Victorian London. In 1857, the medical journal The Lancet estimated that the capital could offer over 6,000 brothels and about 80,000 prostitutes: one woman in every sixteen -- of all ages -- was a whore.

So, there we have it. In Victorian times there was, as ever, a strong interest in matters sexual. There was no legal way in which a desire for accurate sexual information, much less entertainment of an erotic nature, could legitimately be obtained. Hence the pornography business went underground. And it is to the written aspects of that trade that we will devote our attention in part two of this occasional series of posts. But don't hold your breath. It won't be tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Wandering Scribe does book deal

Back in May I wrote a piece about WanderingScribe's blog: this is a blog written by a woman who professes to be be homeless.

I say professes because, having read the thing, I was just a tad sceptical about it. Was she, I wondered, a genuinely homeless woman? Or was she, perhaps, a clever author in search of a book deal? At the risk of doing the lady a severe injustice, I tended to the latter view.

Subsequent comments on that post of mine were divided in their opinions. And, as I noted a few days later, one person went to the trouble of setting up a blog of his/her own, The Truth about WanderingScribe, in which are set out some of the facts and ideas which might lead one to a conclusion about the genuineness or otherwise of the homeless lady.

Since then I haven't given the matter any thought. But now Publishers Lunch reports that the WanderingScribe blogger's name (or writing name?) is Anya Peters, and her book Abandoned is to be published in the UK next May by Harper Thorsons (editor Sally Potter).

The agent for this deal is Camilla Hornby of Curtis Brown. And for those unfamiliar with the power structure of UK literary agencies, let me say that Curtis Brown is one of the two biggest and most powerful firms, and, on average, they accept as clients maybe 1 in 500 of those writers who approach them.

Subject matter of this book is going to be -- wait for it -- a memoir of Anya Peters's abusive childhood and subsequent homelessness.

Well, forgive me for further cynicism, where perhaps some human sympathy might be more appropriate, but if there is one thing that is flavour of the month in the UK bestseller lists just at the moment, it's child abuse. Add in a dose of homelessness and who knows? Could be a big hit. Not to mention a movie and a musical. Lloyd Webber and Elton have doubtless been tipped off already. Billy Elliott done triffic business so why not this?

Ah me. What dreadful things an acquaintance with the book world does to one's faith in humanity.

On WanderingScribe's own blog, the existence of a deal was acknowledged on 17 May. But using edit>find reveals no mention of Harper Thorsons or the agent responsible. 'Advance' doesn't yield a result either. And although agents and publishers are usually quick to reveal the general size of an advance to Publishers Lunch (nice deal = anything up to $50,000; very nice deal = $50,000 to $100,000; and so on) in this case there is silence. Lunch does tell us, however, that Harper Thorsons got the book after an auction. Which means that there was competition from other publishers who could also smell money.

The BBC, I find, also covered this story on 31 May. The comments on it make interesting reading, and cover the full range from sympathy to disgust.

Well, the very least that can be said is that it is surprising to find that an unknown, homeless writer is suddenly able to persuade one of the biggest and most powerful literary agents in town to take her on as a client. One wonders also what sort of a book proposal was cobbled together by this homeless person in order to persuade publishers to bid for it in competition against each other. What, one wonders, is so attractive about WanderingScribe? Surely there are plenty of C-list celebrities still to publish their story?

And another thing. The blog says, 17 May, that she hasn't got the book written yet, 'but after what I've been through with all this, feels like that might be the easy bit.... Writing a book can't be that difficult.'

Actually that's not what most of us find. And this book is scheduled, according to Lunch, for publication next May. Not next year, sometime, maybe. Next May. Usually it takes a publisher a year to get their act together even after you deliver a finished manuscript.

Ah, but, you see, WanderingScribe has spent the last year telling her story to the trees. 'Night after night I told bits of my story to them. Sometimes talking aloud, sometimes staring it into them - all the things I couldn't tell anyone else, all the things my hunched-up spirit was tired of. Trees absorb pain, and some of these will one day be felled and made into paper, and I have this feeling that if I stare really hard into those empty sheets of white paper once I begin to write, I'll probably see my story already there, like a watermark on their blank surfaces.'

Well, apologies to all concerned if I misjudge them, but the more I learn about this the less I like it.

However... Bearing in mind the recent rows in the US about the veracity of various memoirs, one must assume that Curtis Brown and Harper Thorsons have checked this situation out and found it to be completely fireproof. Mustn't one?

Adam Maxwell: Dial M for Monkey

Yesterday was publication day for Adam Maxwell's short-story collection, Dial M for Monkey. This is a book recommended by Chris Stein on Debra Hamel's Buy a Friend a Book site, which gives it some credibility, and the author has also written for Dave Eggers's McSweeney's.

The publisher of Dial M for Monkey is Tonto Press, which is based in the North of England. They've been mentioned here before, briefly, and are looking for novels as well as non-fiction books. The firm has Arts Council support, but we'll forgive them for that. And, if you live in the north-east, they are offering some creative-writing courses.

The Dial M For Monkey launch party will be held this Thursday, 29 June, at Opera Piano Bar & Lounge, on the ground floor of The Gate complex in Newcastle upon Tyne. Doors open at 7.30, and admission is free. I believe this is what's known as a networking opportunity. A little too far away for me, though.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Another Monday

Monday morning usually sees us taking note of someone who's gone completely barmy over the weekend, and today is no exception.

Amazon out of control -- says the Book Standard

The Book Standard says that Amazon is out of control -- which I take to mean has gone nuts -- and, on the evidence offered, I agree. Amazon has started a grocery store.

I used to think that it would be catastrophic if Amazon failed to make profits and collapsed. But I no longer feel so worried. I'm not sure, frankly, that Amazon ever has made profits, but if it did go down the tube (and going on diversifying for ever and ever seems a good way to bring it about), then I think others would step into the gap. Very willingly, actually. Tesco, anyone? Or see below re

Music/publishing parallels

From about 1955 to 1970 I was seriously interested in popular music and jazz. In those days I had ears, of course, which helps. And I'm still kind of interested, though I am handicapped by the fact that my audiologist describes me as 'difficult'.

Anway, the Times on Friday had a really interesting piece about modern popular music, and how bands can take off by using My Space and other internet devices.

The general drift of the story (which is far from new) is that, in order to be popular and sell lots of records, you need the right music and the right face(s) and the right story. Putting these factors together is something of an art. Sandi Thom seems to have done it. But there's a 52-year old bloke in Glasgow who can do the music but is probably 30-odd years too old.

What this story says to me (and again this is not new) is that 17th Street and Kaavya had very much the right idea in terms of books, but they done it all wrong. Do it right and publishing could have a very big hit indeed.

Christopher G. Moore

Christopher G. Moore is a very successful novelist (17 novels so far). Unusually, he lives in Thailand and has developed something of a cult status in Eastern markets.

Christopher is also a blogger, recently added to the blogroll here. In his latest post (as I write), he considers the value of originality in fiction. In doing so, he leads us to yet another agent/blogger with some telling things to say, Kristin of Denver, Colorado -- a lady who blogs as Pub Rants.

Yes, much to one's surprise, it seems that the book world does not end at the borders of New York City or Greater London.

Gary Troup unveiled

If you ever wondered (and you may not have) who Gary Troup really was (see my earlier post re Lost), then Dow Jones newswires has news for you (link from Publishing News).

Laurence Shames, a writer known for such crime novels as "The Naked Detective" and "Welcome to Paradise," would not confirm or deny yesterday a report in Daily Variety that he is also the author of "Bad Twin," a novel published under the name of Gary Troup, a character from ABC's hit drama series"Lost."

"Gary Troup wrote the book," Mr. Shames said..."It is interesting how closely his prose style resembles mine. He sets a lot of the story in places I've been..."

Just for the record, Mr. Shames calls "Bad Twin" an "excellent" book that "everyone should read."

Independent booksellers (understandably) don't like it when bloggers mention -- or, worse, link to -- online booksellers, so keep this one quiet. There is now a new player in town. Only three months ago I had never heard of, but now they're ranked fifth among Britain's top internet retailers. To be precise, they come behind Amazon UK, Dell, Argos and Tesco. See what I mean about it not being the end of the world if Amazon were to collapse? The story is at Publishing News.

More ways to sell a book than two

Many and various, as we have often noted, are the ways in which writers seek to achieve publication and, having published, try to achieve sales.

Galleycat reports that Tom Dunkel of the Baltimore Sun found a conspiracy-theory web site called Operation Emu. This tells a fairly familiar story: bunch of guys go out into the Nevada desert and disappear. The place where they disappear is in the heart of Area 51, which is said to be the Times Square of UFO activity.

On investigation, Operation Emu turns out to be a plug for a novel by one R. Brandon Barker. And, so far, it's worked. Barker has attracted enough visitors to his site to persuade agent Byrd Leavell of New York-based Waxman Agency to take him on. The novel is said to be satirical, and derives its fun from 'the cult of alien-life true believers'.

Lost Girls by Alan Moore: a slur on Wendy

Galleycat also has a tale about a comic book or graphic novel (Lost Girls, by Alan Moore) which features Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and Wendy from Peter Pan. And, in said comic book, the three gals have mad passionate sex together.

This is a filthy lie. Wendy ain't no lesbo. I had it from a guy who's bin there.

Alan Moore's Dorothy/Alice/Wendy thingy has attracted a cover story from Publishers Weekly. My prediction: even at $75 dollars a pop, this well sell out overnight. Order your copy now.

For those who care, there are copyright issues here. The Peter Pan copyright is yet another case which keeps lawyers wonderfully well remunerated, as I explained in my post of 20 January 2006. The issues were further illuminated by m'learned friend C.E. Petit, Esq.

PEN friends

Another story on Galleycat features a very bad-tempered representative of PEN. If you've never hear of it, International PEN is a worldwide association of writers, 'founded in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere; to emphasise the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture'; and all like that. Terrible worthy, earnest, and, as far as I have always been concerned, dull.

I presume, though I don't know, that PEN is a voluntary organisation, staffed by unpaid amateurs; and that one must therefore make allowances in what one expects from them. But I can only say that in my one contact with that operation (over a short-story competition, a couple of years ago), they proved to be so astoundingly incompetent that I immediately made a resolution never to have anything further to do with them.

The PEN spat with Lynne Scanlon, as described by Galleycat, does nothing to change that view.

Famous Five interfered with

The other day, I said that, faced with the choice of reading Douglas Coupland or Enid Blyton, I would settle for Enid any day.

Well, now some son of a bitch has been interfering with the Famous Five. I won't go into the sordid details because it's all too distressing, and not fit for a family blog, but the Sunday Times has the story.

'Blyton’s books would remain true to her intentions, the publisher insisted. “The books have only been very slightly altered with the addition of decimalisation to bring them up to date,” said Margaret Conroy of Hodder.'

Yeah, right. That's what they all say.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Serious disillusion

Have you ever been, like, seriously disillusioned? I mean seriously disillusioned. Like when your Mummy told you there wasn't a Father Christmas/Santa Claus. Or when you discovered that Daddy was really the tooth fairy? Or the first time you read a Booker Prizewinner? Hmm?

Well now here is one that will really stop you dead in your tracks. But the news is -- and she admits this herself, mind you -- the news is that the Joyful Homemaker actually has messy corners in her house.

I tell you, I had to go into another room and snuffle when I found out.

What, I have to ask myself, is the good Lord going to think about that? And she wrote this on the Sabbath, too. Has the woman no shame?

Dove Grey Reader blog

Dove Grey Reader (or dovegreyreader, or ? dove-grey reader) is a 'Devonshire based bookaholic [she ain't kidding] sock knitting quilter, who happens to be a community nurse in her spare time.' She has much to say on the subject of books, and all of it worth hearing about. (Thanks to Susan Hill for the introductions to this lady and the one above.)

The help is out there

Biff Mitchell is giving a workshop on science fiction and cyberpunk at the Maritime Writers' Workshop, July 9-14. Location, if I'm reading it correctly, is in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Other writers are also involved. Details on Biff's web site, and on the workshop's blog.


Andwerve is a Los Angeles-based literary journal, published monthly, which also appears on the web. The editors say: 'We think of ourselves as a conscientious alternative to a media that is generally unaccepting of radical, progressive artwork. andwerve is a publication modeled on the open-source software model, a social philosophy that seeks to push the boundaries of art, culture, and self; to free art from the confines of academia and corporate sponsorship and return it to the people who create it and enjoy it.'

Free art from the confines of academia? I didn't know it was locked up in academia, but there we are. As you can tell from the above, andwerve is fairly modern, cutting-edge stuff (sparing with the capital letters), but they claim to be 'open to anything. if your fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, painting, or design challenges existing forms and established lines of communication, then please submit your work.'

Smarter thinking by Random House

Publishers Lunch this week mentioned that the Wall Street Journal had published an article about the 'generally tired topic' of publishers' objections to the Google Library program. The WSJ article is not available online, unfortunately, but apparently Richard Sarnoff, of Random House, is quoted as follows:

We are going to turn on a fire hose of discovery for the works that we control, where they're going to be discoverable beyond snippets in every possible way on the Net....When those things are discoverable and partially readable on the Web, we're also going to turn on different ways you can then consume it and pay for it. And we're going with Google and a whole host of other partners who we're talking to, in getting that done.
Now that sounds a great deal more sensible than some of the stuff that we've been hearing from publishers -- and from authors, for that matter; at least insofar as they are represented by the US Authors Guild.

Words of wisdom

In a short discussion of the value, or otherwise, of blogs written by published authors, Galleycat quotes SF writer Kristine Smith on the usefulness of knowing what is currently fashionable in the publishing world: 'In the 2-3 years it would take for me to research and write a novel that would fit that niche, the needs would change and they'd want something else.'

So... So you don't need me to spell it out.

The Wow! factor

This blog has more than once remarked on the fact that popular music has the capacity to make people (mostly young people) go Wow! And they immediately want to buy a copy of whatever it is that has made them go Wow! And we have also noticed that it is extremely difficult to identify precisely what it is that causes this effect, whether in music or in fiction.

Well, now some weirdo bunch of scientists somewhere is trying. The Telegraph has the story. Or, to be more precise, John Sutherland has the story (Professor Sutherland to you; at least I assume it's the Prof, though that reference to Magneto's helmet in X-Men has got me worried). (Link from

Anyway, it seems that the boffins have analysed thousands of popular-music tracks and have identified hundreds of musical attributes or 'genes'; these they have assembled into a 'music genome' which summarises the 'unique and magical musical identity of any individual song'.

And, if you're muttering So what?, then consider this. Once you have ze formula you can conquer ze vorld. Ve haf vays of making you buy.

If you want to try out this latest miracle of science, hie thee to Pandora and follow the instructions.

Sutherland looks forward to the day when a similar service will be available for books. The technology isn't there yet, he says, because popular music has coughed up the money for the underlying research and the book world hasn't.

Actually, I take leave to question whether we need technology. What we do have, already, is quite a few web sites which offer a 'Who writes like' service. Just choosing one at random: Reader's Corner. And plenty of public libraries offer suggestions: either online, as in the case of Wellington, New Zealand, or in person, in the shape of your cuddly neighbourhood librarian. All you have to do is ask.

If you prefer your information in book form, you can get it from Loughborough University's Library and Information Statistics Unit. Sample pages available.

Entertainment booms

The global entertainment and media industry will be worth $1.8 trillion (£977 billion) by 2010, says a report from accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The spread of broadband internet and wireless technology will be the driving forces behind the growth. (Report from the BBC; link from

Apart from noting that the 2010 value figure covers everything from 'books and trips to the cinema, to TV and internet subscriptions in the home' the report says nothing whatever about publishing, let alone fiction as a part of publishing. But my opinion remains unchanged: despite all this excitement and people saying Wow! all the time, fiction is going to have an increasingly hard time maintaining its share of the market.

Coupland is such fun

Private Eye this week provides a clue as to why fiction -- particularly literary fiction -- is going to find it hard to keep up.

Douglas Coupland is evidently a novelist with some literary reputation, and he has a new book out. According to the Eye, this book (iPod) contains, among other wonders, 'the first 100,000 digits of pi, the 8,363 prime numbers between 1,000 and 10,000, all the three-letter words in Scrabble (with one bogus selection), phishing emails, computer error codes and so on. We are asked to presume that there is some meaning to all this drivel...'

Well, thanks, but on the whole I think I'll stick to Enid Blyton, as usual.


Cantara Books (a small publisher) is the brainchild of Cantara Christopher. You can find her latest newsletter on the Cantarabooks blog. This gives details some of the books on her list. And, if you live in New York City, she has details of various events and is looking for beta testers of various devices.

Picolata Review

The Picolata Review has announced its first publication, on 21 June. As the name suggests, this is yet another small literary magazine, to be published monthly online. It describes itself as 'a place to find emerging writers and poets'. Unlike most such magazines, this one will consider genre fiction. See the submissions page.

More on book sales in Europe

That which I referred to last Monday as a 'small, quiet war' has got bigger and noisier. The war is about who gets to sell English-language books on the continent of Europe.

Basically, the Brit publishers are saying that Europe is theirs, and there are laws to prove it. The Americans think it should be open to any publisher. Details in Publishing News; link from

And finally...

Normally I don't take any notice of small-town America deciding to ban this or that. It seems to happen every day. But I did notice somewhere that some braindead moron had decided that kids who lived in shelters for the homeless in Porter County would no longer be eligible to borrow library books. And I wasn't impressed.

Well, Michael Schaub reports on Bookslut that the library directors have changed their minds. Why? Because a bunch of kids shamed them into it, that's why.

Eleven-year-old Taylor Knoblock led the charge, taking his brother, Jacob, 9, and sister, Rachel, 6, and a wagon with him.

'I read in the paper that the public library wouldn’t let kids from the homeless shelter check out books anymore,' Taylor said. 'I didn’t like that idea, so I started to collect books for Spring Valley to have their own library....

'I feel sad for people that don’t have the same stuff as I do,' said Taylor, who by early afternoon had collected about 50 books and 20 videotapes.

Michael Schaub thinks young Taylor is a hero and so by golly do I.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style

I have more than once expressed the view that the physical shape and design of a book has a pronounced effect on the reader's enjoyment of it. Usually this effect is unconscious, but it's real enough, and it is more important, I think, than many people realise -- including professionals who ought to know better.

I have also said, from time to time, that on average, year in and year out, it seems to me that American book design is superior to British.

Well, in Robert Bringhurst's classic text The Elements of Typographic Style, we have some wonderful insights into how the conscious or unconscious impact of a well designed book is brought about. The Elements of Typographic Style is vastly superior, in every way, to Williamson's Methods of Book Design, which was recommended to me a decade or so ago as the authoritative book its field.

Bringhurst's masterwork was first published in 1990. Rapid developments in digital technology meant that it had to be revised and enlarged in 1996; and the third edition, again fully revised, appeared in 2004. It is widely recognised, I believe, as a classic in its field, and I can't say that I am surprised.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that every author and publisher ought to own this book (though I have bought one myself), because it is extremely technical in places, and overall is far too detailed for most laymen. However, I do think it would do no harm for all book lovers to take a look at it, if only to understand how deeply some people care about the importance of the page's appearance.

In itself, this book is an exceptionally elegant piece of design: but you would expect that, I think. Taller and narrower than many books, it was designed by the author, set into type in Canada, and printed and bound in Hong Kong; because the world is flat. The basic font used is Minion Pro, which I first noticed, and heartily approved of, in the latest Terry Pratchett novel.

Minion is not without its critics: someone told me that, as issued, the closing quotation mark is positioned too close to the full stop, with the result that it can all too easily be mistaken for an exclamation mark. However, I didn't notice that in the Pratchett book; and in any case, as Bringhurst explains, the skilled typographer can tweak the kerning settings of most fonts these days, so as to eliminate any nuisances of this kind. And, bearing in mind some of the examples that Bringhurst offers, you will be amazed by how sharp an eye some of these typographers have.

The contents page reveals that the book is divided into 11 chapters with five appendices. This page could, with advantage, give a much more detailed breakdown of the sub-headings within each chapter, as the titles themselves -- e.g. Rhythm and Proportion; Harmony and Counterpoint -- do not tell us very much. However, there is a very thorough index at the back.

The early chapters give us a number of practical working rules: e.g. Add extra lead (space) before and after block quotations. On hyphens, for instance, Bringhurst is relaxed about their appearance at the end of a page (something that the old guard would never have allowed), but says that 'in the interests of typographic hygiene, unnecessary hyphens should be omitted.'

We also have a vast amount of background information. For example, I learnt that the mediaeval scribes and clerks devoted much more attention to the layout of their manuscripts than I had hitherto suspected. I suppose this is fairly obvious when you think about it: copying a document or a book might take you a week or a year, and the result would have a substantial value, so naturally you would give a great deal of thought as to how to make a good job of it.

The mathematical bases for the various traditional (and new) page sizes are fully explained, and, interestingly, parallels are drawn with music. 'The shape of the page itself,' says Bringhurst, 'will provoke certain responses and expectations in the reader, independently of whatever text it contains.' For example, 'the very long and narrow columns of newspapers and magazines have come to suggest disposable prose and quick, unthoughtful reading.'

And so on. This is not a book that can readily be summarised. It can only be studied and admired.

Bringhurst himself, I discover, is a bit of a polymath but perhaps principally a poet. Typography seems to be almost the least of his interests. If you want to read an interview with him (from 1997), there is one on the typebooks site. I particularly like the following response, when he is asked what book he is working on at the moment:
I think that books, like people, are better off not being talked about behind their backs. Before they are finished, books are all back. After they are published, people, including the author, can say what they please.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Kristin Shoemaker: Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis is published by the author, Kristin Shoemaker, through, and Kristin makes no bones about it.

What does that imply, if anything? Well, in this day and age I suggest that it does not mean that you're automatically going to read something second rate. Far from it. But the odds are that a book is not going to be something that would excite a New York editor. Because the likelihood is that the author will have tried agents and editors before going to Lulu.

Actually I don't know whether Kristin Shoemaker did that or not. But I think it's fair to say that Aurora Borealis is not a book that would excite a New York editor. In and of itself. What I think it does do is constitute a very respectable example of what is called, in TV circles, a calling-card script. That is to say, it is a piece of work which demonstrates rather well that the author can produce work of a professional standard.

The author now has a novel which is nicely printed out in book format -- and that is always so much more impressive than a heap of manuscript -- and she can hand copies out to professionals and say, look this is an example of what I can do. Viewed in that way, I regard Aurora Borealis as an impressive and valuable piece of work. If I were an editor in a leading fiction house (or even a small one), I wouldn't actually have published this book. But if I were shown it, and spent a few minutes reading it, I would certainly say, and mean it, please let me see anything else that you write.

Told in the first person, Aurora Borealis tells how Alice Pendleton, an aspiring writer, comes to suffer endless (metaphorical) torture at the hands of her sister from hell -- a sister who is named Aurora. The tension and antagonism are steadily increased to the point where Alice decides that there is nothing for it -- she is just going to have to bump her sister off.

The main virtues of this book are:
It's short: maybe 55,000 words.
It's well written: the author can spell and punctuate.
It has a clearly defined plot: this is not 225 pages of anguished introspection.
It's amusing -- not laugh out loud funny, but I certainly view it as a black comedy.
These are not negligible accomplishments. As for shortcomings: well, the plot is a little creaky here and there. But these things improve with practice, and after a few more books Kristin will be as competent as anyone.

Judging by this initial book, Kristin is more naturally inclined to the commercial market than to literary world, and that, in my opinion, is an entirely healthy state of affairs. If I were her agent I would encourage her to do a few books in a strictly commercial format -- the more tightly formulaic the better -- in order to gain experience. Using another name wouldn't do any harm. Then, when she finds her feet, she can do books which have a more personal stamp on them.

If you want to read another, and rather harsher, review of this book, you can find one by Kate Trout. Though in my view Ms Trout takes the whole thing rather more seriously than is necessary. Aurora Borealis is, as I say, a black comedy, and black comedies are not designed to give us a template for living right.

It was, incidentally, Kristin Shoemaker's blog which led me to the Trout review. And, as you will realise when you see that the blog is called Linux Librarian, Kristin has more than one pair of shoes in her wardrobe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The libel laws of England part 94

The Guardian this morning carries a report of a libel case in progress in the English courts. The case is important in that it is believed to be the first time that a publisher has sought to use the so-called Reynolds defence.

The Reynolds defence was developed in the judgment on a libel action brought some time ago by the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds against the Sunday Times. In theory, it allows the media to print allegations that are in the public interest, irrespective of whether their truth can be ascertained, so long as certain important tests are applied.

Anyone seeking to publish a non-fiction book in the UK, and especially a book which claims to expose wrongdoing of one sort or another, should keep an eye on this one.

Sam Bourne finally makes it

As noted here on several occasions, most notably perhaps on 3 April, it has taken some time for The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, to achieve the recognition which is, as all right-thinking folk will agree, the birthright of any novel written by a Fleet Street journalist and agented by the all-powerful Jonny Geller.

At last, however, Bourne (aka Jonathan Freedland, political columnist of the Guardian) has made it: he is officially on Richard and Judy's summer reading list. And if that doesn't shift a few copies, nothing will. (Link from Publishers Lunch. For Richard and Judy think Oprah UK.)

On Saturday last, the Times did a profile of the woman who apparently draws up the reading list for our beloved R & J: her name is Amanda Ross. A nice enough lady, I'm sure, but I have the odd quibble with her.

In respect of The Righteous Men, Amanda says this: 'This book was the best thriller that I read, and thrillers really aren't my genre. I find it tough to choose thrillers.'

Well -- ahem -- actually, darling, we could have deduced that from the fact that you chose this one. I haven't read it myself, but I think it's fair to say that those who have read it regard it, for the most part, as second rate.

Mind you, right at the start of the Times profile, some of the really important factors in determining R & J's all-powerful list are made clear. Here is what Amanda Ross says about the process of making her massively sales-generating choices:
I don’t pretend that I know what definitely will make a bestseller. That’s not how I choose the books. My criteria, honestly, is: is this book going to entertain and engage people enough to generate 12 to 15 minutes of gripping television? The bottom line is: what’s the sofa chat?
Well that's honest enough for you. And no doubt the political columnist of the Guardian is a dab hand at the TV shows. Even if he doesn't look all that wonderful in a mini-skirt, which is another useful asset for a wannabe bestseller.

By the way, while I may not be too fussy about the subjunctive, I do have to admit that I prefer people who use a plural noun to use the plural form of the verb. Just one of my funny little quirks.

Noah Cicero writes on

A writer is someone who writes, is what I've always said. She doesn't sit around talking about what she does, or telling people that she's going to do a book some day. She writes. And Noah Cicero does as much in this line as most people. Maybe more.

Noah was noted here a while back for Burning Babies. (Not the most attractive title.) Now he has a blog, and the blog tells us about the forthcoming (any day) The Condemned; and about The Furious Land (a freebie via Lulu); and he's also in The Edgier Waters.

Sariola's ghost

Those of you who love to worry over the ethics of ghostwriting can chew over this one for some time, I suspect. It comes from Finland (link from the Literary Saloon).

Here's the headline: Finnish novelist admits to using ghost writer for 16 crime novels. Publisher denies knowledge. (Hastily.) And the author is apologising. And they all have confusingly similar names.

There is no indication, by the way, that any of the people who bought and read these 16 novels are complaining. So quite why the 'author' feels the need to apologise I'm not sure -- unless she now feels that it was somehow wrong to put out a ghostwritten book in the first place. In which case I think she is misguided. Personally I am entirely relaxed about ghostwriting, as you may have gathered from previous posts.

Modern publishing is a business, and big-time writers are brands. And there's a class of reader that really doesn't care about art and literature (I'm one, for a start). Just gimme a good romance, they say. Or a thriller. And if it's got a name on it that I recognise, and it's the same sort of book as the last one with that name on it, that's fine. Tells me all I need to know. Who actually wrote it and how they divide the loot is none of my business.

Actually this Finnish ghostwriting affair looks very like the Michael Gruber/Robert Tanenbaum business. That is to say, there comes a time when the ghost decides to set up in his/her own right, and then the history of the ghosted books becomes a commercial asset for the ghost turned name author.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Monday morning

Bullshit jobs

Galleycat reports on a launch party for Stanley Bing's book 101 Bullshit Jobs... and How to Get Them. And there's an excerpt from the book, dealing with agents and book editors, which might amuse you. Of book editors, Bing says, 'the more [money] you make, the more access you have to the highest, rocket-grade bullshit imaginable.' He also adds: 'The great book editor is at once a gifted salesperson, an arbiter of taste, a babysitter of lost souls, and a closet boulevardier. God bless them, both of them.'

Sounds to me as if he's been there and done it.

Boris on why women read

In the Telegraph, Boris Johnson has an article about why women read fiction. Actually it's not only about that: it's a wide-ranging article dealing with social changes in the UK. But when we get to the reading fiction bit, here is Boris's conclusion:

The reason women devour so much fiction is that it is the only place where they can find a certain idea of masculinity. It is a spirit that has been regulated out of the workplace and banished from the classroom.

Women turn to fiction, I would guess, because it is the last reservation for men who are neither violent thugs nor politically correct weeds, where a girl can still get her bodice ripped without the bodice ripper being locked up.

Now that seems about right to me, although Michael Schaub, of Bookslut, who led me to the article, didn't seem to think much of it.

Most UK readers of this blog will know who Boris is, but in case you don't you can find out on Wikipedia. Personally I wish he was Prime Minister.

Calling Joanna Trollope fans

OK, here's the deal. On 26 June the BBC World Service will be interviewing Joanna Trollope on the World Book Club programme. You can find details on the BBC's appropriate web page. The discussion will centre on one book in particular, The Rector's Wife.

If you have read this book, and would like to ask the author a question about it, then here's your chance. Send an email to You can use this address right up until the day of the broadcast, but the sooner the better.

If you visit the BBC site, you will see that the same page has links to numerous previous interviews which you can still listen to: about 30 or 40 of them, including all the usual literary suspects but also Martin Cruz Smith, Ken Follett, Ruth Rendell, Terry Pratchett, and other big commercial names.

More on the Book Depository

New online retailer the Book Depository, mentioned here some ten days ago, is a bigger and more elaborate outfit than I had realised, though I still don't think that the home page makes it immediately obvious what the site actually does. And as I'm a simple sort of chap I like to be told these things. Anyway, just how big and elaborate a business it is is explained in Publishing News.

Book sales in Europe

British and American publishers have for some time been fighting a small, quiet war over the right to sell books in English on the continent of Europe. Now the bosses of some European book businesses have made it plain that they want an open market. Details in

Jordan on horseback

We have already noted, you and I (15 March to be precise), that Katie Price, aka the stupendously well endowed (if with assistance) model Jordan, is to publish a novel in July. Entitled Angel, the cover looks quite remarkably dull to me.

However, there is good news. Publishing News reports that Katie is to plug the book by riding a horse down Oxford Street, dressed as an angel. Now angels aren't usually dressed like Lady Godiva, dammit, but Jordan is a lively lass and I dare say she would do it if there were enough requests. Go on, write in. Her publisher (Arrow/Random House) don't have a web site for her listed on their list of author sites, so you'll just have to write to them. Not that they want you to, of course. Publishers don't want to be bothered by mere members of the public: see their contact page, which definitely warns you off.

By the way, Angel has so far subbed 150,000 copies. 'Subbed' in the UK book trade, means ordered by the retail trade in advance of publication.

Irvine Welsh interview

The Book Standard has an interview with Irvine Welsh, of Trainspotting fame.

Treat to look forward to

Hey, you know what I found out? Susanna Clarke has a new book coming out. In October, subject to change. Entitled The Ladies of Grace Adieu, it's being issued by Bloomsbury. Looks like a collection of short stories. Well, she published a few of those while she was writing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and I thought they were pretty good.

How not to advertise

Saturday's Times has a Books section, and then another section entitled The Knowledge: this latter deals with 'the cultural week', and has info on films, theatre, music, galleries, et cetera, plus the week's TV and radio listings.

In last Saturday's The Knowledge there was an advert for a book entitled The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephanie Doyon. The ad occupied most of a page, and advertising space in the Times is not cheap.

Apart from a picture of the book, the ad ran as follows (all in capital letters): Stand by me meets a confederacy of dunces in this enchanting story spanning three generations in small town America.

Now... What the fuck, as I believe the young people say. I tried this on Mrs GOB, and it meant absolutely nothing to her. It does mean something to me, but not a lot. Stand by me is presumably a reference to the 1986 film of that name, which I never saw but which is, I suppose, tolerably well known if you happen to have been around in 1986 and were paying any attention to films at the time. All I remember about it is that it was about a bunch of boys.

Then there's a confederacy of dunces. This is, equally presumably, a reference to the novel of that name which won the Pulitzer prize in 1981. I tried to read it and found it the most excruciatingly dull book that I'd read in a very long time. It is chiefly famous because the author committed suicide; it is said that he became depressed following numerous rejections of his novel, which was only published through the efforts of his mother after his death. As for what it's about -- I remember nothing.

So -- what we now have is an expensive advert for a paperback (no price given), published by Bloomsbury, and the only thing this ad tells us is that the book might, just conceivably, if you are extraordinarily well read and well movied, remind you of a couple of things which appeared more than twenty years ago.

Does this strike you as a good way to spend a marketing budget?

Hope for the great unwashed

There's an ever-growing band of hopefuls (it seems to me) who believe that if you put stuff out in one form or another, even give it away free, and if it's really really good, then sooner or later it will attract the attention of a big-time publisher, and fame and fortune will be yours for ever more.

Should you happen to believe that particiular article of faith, then your faith will be reinforced by a Joel Rickett report in the Guardian (link from 'The cannier conglomerate publishers,' says Joel, 'are scouring blogs and specialist websites to find promising material. HarperCollins's paperback team, Harper Perennial, has turned up three books from small publishers that have created a stir; each will be reworked, redesigned and marketed to a wider audience.'

These three are Michael Norton's 'subversive ethical guide', 365 Ways to Change the World; a set of fantasy short stories, Magic for Beginners, by 'the cult American author' Kelly Link; and Belinda Rathbone's The Guynd, which traces the true story of how an American art historian fell in love with an eccentric Scottish laird.

Susan Hill on the Orange Prize

Last Saturday's (17 June) Times quoted Susan Hill's blog reference to the Orange Prize, which she helped to judge in 1996. 'The management team is feminist PC new Labour personified. It is the only prize I have judged where I was really, really unhappy with the whole tone of the way it was run.'

That blog entry was on 24 May. On 17 June Susan notes that what she writes is being noticed, as well she might, because what she has to say is always relevant and timely, and comes with a welath of experience behind it. Her blog is rapidly becoming essential reading.

On 17 June, for instance, she says this: 'The fact is that a lot - a lot, a lot, a lot - of people who read and buy books, now take absolutely no notice of the literary pages of the papers - indeed, they probably never glance at them.'

Damn right, sweetheart. Me included. Well, I do glance, but only to see what silly ideas they've come up with now. Like that book advert, mentioned above.

PDF made simple

Someone wrote to me a while back and asked about how to make PDF files. I gave such advice as I could, though I am really the last person to ask about technical matters.

Basically, if you want to make really professional PDFs, you need the Adobe Acrobat programme, which is very expensive. I have an early version, which I used on Windows 95, but it doesn't work on Windows XP. I wonder why? Can Adobe be encouraging me to buy an upgrade?

There are various medium-priced programs, such as Serif Page Plus, which will allow you to convert a page layout to PDF. Serif is quite a good programme, but it takes a many hours to learn how to use it.

And there are also some free conversion programs. The trouble with the free ones, at any rate those of them that I've tried in the past, is that they sometimes alter the layout of the page when doing the conversion. This is something that I find totally unacceptable. In fact it drives me nuts.

However... Over the weekend I read an article which mentioned pdf995. This is free, if you can put up with a few adverts, and only costs $9.95 if you want to get rid of the ads. More to the point, it seems to work. I have only tried it on three files so far, but I deliberately chose as test pieces three files which I thought might give trouble, and the PDFs emerged just fine.

Much more testing is needed before I decide if I'm completely happy. And, as you would expect, this program lacks any kind of control over the extent to which images, for example, are compressed or not compressed.

For a lot of people, however, that kind of refinement is unnecessary anyway. Take a look. It's easy to download and absolutely straightforward to use (even for a non-techie like me).

Friday, June 16, 2006


I must be getting old. Thought I had posted some of this stuff on Monday, but, unless I am even older than I thought, I didn't. So here it is now, plus some later stuff accumulated during the week.

Post Secrets

Seth Godin's post about blog traffic led me to PostSecret, a bizarre and sometimes disturbing place where people write their secrets on a postcard. For those who care about novelty, this is a wholly new 'art form' (for want of a better word), enabled by the internet. Either that or it's a clever wheeze to make money out of other people's work. There's a book involved.

Read the small print before you contribute. And it's hard on the eyes, because it's one of those white text on black background things that drive me crazy.

Was, were, and the subjunctive

A commenter on the ghostwriting post takes me to task for writing 'If I was...' instead of 'If I were...' In other words, I am told that I should have used the subjunctive mood.

Well, yes. And then again, no.

When I was writing the sentence complained of, I did actually pause before tapping further on the keyboard. I contemplated writing 'If I were...' and decided against it.

Why? Well, because of a general sense that the language is changing. And because a blog is not the most formal of contexts. And besides, I said to myself, will anyone not understand me if I write 'If I was...'? I decided not.

But, for the record, I have now consulted Authority on the question of the subjunctive.

Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, as revised by Burchfield (and not, I understand, in itself universally admired) says that the standard reference work on historical English syntax has 156 pages on the subjunctive. Which is too many for me. But in the conclusion of his own (rather complicated) article on the subject, Fowler/Burchfield says that the subjunctive 'is seldom obligatory.'

If we go back 58 years to Sir Ernest Gowers's Plain Words, for a mercifully simpler explanation, we find that he does accept that it was common (in 1948) to find the subjunctive used after 'if'. However, after, quoting various instances of the subjunctive, he concludes: 'It is probably true of all of them that the indicative would have been equally correct, and certainly true that the subjunctive has a formal, even pedantic air.'

Well, as you may have noticed, the style of this blog varies wildly between the twenty-first-century informal and the eighteenth-century formal, so you may find all sorts of usages occurring. And I do not guarantee consistency in the use of the subjunctive or anything else. But I don't think I would accept the argument that 'If I was...' is, in and of itself, necessarily wrong.

As to the anonymous commenter's question -- does the ability to spot things like this qualify him as a good ghostwriter -- I suppose my answer to that is that this ability is certainly useful, and, insofar as it is indicative of close attention to detail, it is a Good Thing. But don't count on it to get you a contract.

Rosemary de Courcy

In a quiet way, Rosemary de Courcy is one of the most famous names in UK publishing. She started out (as I recall) as an editor at Futura, a mass-market paperback firm. It was about thirty years ago, when the paperback firms, particularly the American ones, were cutting each other's throats to buy the rights to books. And Rosie sold the US rights to some really rather ordinary bodice-ripper for about $300,000 -- which was quite a lot of money in those days. Hence she became hot.

She and I had a discussion at that time, about the possibility of writing a paperback original, but we never came to any agreement, and the proposed book (Counter-Coup) was later published by Muller.

Since then Rosie has gone onward and upward, but always making use of her very substantial editing skills. Never (so far as I know) tempted to write her own novels, Rosie has always had a keen nose for what is commercial and what can be sold. Really smart, in other words. Never dumb enough to fall for all the lit'ry glamour.

Now it seems, she is planning a move which will give her 'a more flexible career to take beyond pensionable age.' She has joined up with a literary agency (Mulcahy and Viney) and will also continue to provide editorial services to the likes of Maeve Binchy, Penny Vincenzi, and others. Joel Rickett has the story in the Guardian (link from

Indie bestsellers

Joel Rickett also reports that the Bookseller has started to publish a special bestseller list derived from the sales at 20 leading independent bookshops. This, it is believed, will give a different picture of the trade from the usual lists, which are heavily influenced by supermarket sales. For better or worse, this new list does not seem to be available online.

April Ashley tells all

You have to be quite old, and British, to remember April Ashley. But she was a big name in the tabloids some forty or perhaps fifty years ago. Why? Because April was probably the first bloke in Britain to 'have the operation' and become -- superficially speaking at any rate -- a woman. Now she's written a book.

The book, The First Lady, is written, interestingly enough, 'with' Douglas Thompson. Our Doug, a name not previously known to me, turns out to be one of the heroes of our time, i.e. a ghostwriter (mainly). As a ghost he has helped along the likes of Christine Keeler, Michael Flatley, and Paul Nicholas. What is more he writes showbiz biographies on his own. Just the sort of career, in fact, that sensible writers would aim for.

You can get a broad outline of the April Ashley story from an interview in the Sunday Times. An old show-business friend of mine performed with April in a nightclub in the 1960s. He ended up flat on his back while April, skirts a-twirling, danced above him. 'It's true, it's true!' he yelled.

Yes, I know. Terribly vulgar. But it was that sort of era. (See Boothby, below.)

Jeanette Winterson bereted

Jeanette Winterson reports that she has been 'bereted by two readers, indeed made into something of an escaped goat, for being sufficiently unfamiliar with the English language to imagine there was such a thing as a damp squid.' And she has whole lot more of the same in her entertaining column in last Saturday's Times.

Pot and kettle

Galleycat reports that John Freeman (whoever he), writing on the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors, has been criticising book bloggers who review books and then offer links to an online retailer from which, if a reader buys the book, they get a commission. Freeman claims that this is immoral and removes any shred of credibility that a litblogger might have.

Well, cheeky bugger, is all I can say. As it happens I don't (usually) link to Amazon or anyone else (although I have in the Doug Thompson bit just above), and I can't be arsed to go through the rigmarole of setting up affiliate status anyway. But what about those newspapers which happily accept advertising from publishers and then, by a curious coincidence, review books from said publishers? What are we to make of that, eh Freeman? Whassa matter --cat got your tongue?

The Boothby affair

Unless you're very old, and English, you won't remember, but once upon a time there was a politician called Bob Boothby, who later became Lord Boothby. He had a number of distinctions, not the least of which was that he was bisexual; in that capacity he not only fancied boys, but also fathered a child by the wife of Harold Macmillan, a man who later became Prime Minister (and remained married to the same wife).

The other day, when looking for something quite different, I came across a fascinating short memoir by John Pearson. It seems to have been printed, if I'm reading it right, in the Independent on Sunday on 15 June 1997.

It's too long a story to go into here, but Pearson tells how politicians, journalists, senior police officers, and various others, all saw fit to save Lord Boothby's skin, purely and simply because it suited their own interests to do so. Also involved are various murders and murderers, gay orgies, blackmail, extortion, gangs... Oh and a whole lot more.

None of this is news, really, We've had it all rehearsed in the press and in books, many a time. But John Pearson's article is an interesting read none the less. And, of course, these events have been dealt with in fiction, most notably I suppose by Jake Arnott -- a writer who does not, I'm afraid, impress me, but who has impressed other people. Unless I mistake me, Arnott's character Lord Teddy Thursby has strong echoes of Boothby.

The Pearson article appears on the web site of Bernard O'Mahoney, a writer who specialises in books on crime.

Jesus Christ never was

Never was what? Well, never was at all. Never existed. So, at least, argues Luigi Cascioli, and he has a web site in four languages to prove it.

There's a book involved. Well of course -- there would have to be, wouldn't there? And there's a law suit. And it all links up with the Da Vinci code. But how did you guess? And the web site has masses and masses of other stuff.

If you're looking for the racy bits, try the essay on Nudism and Satanism: complete with pictures. As you would expect, this has lots of stuff about clerical orgies, witchcraft, and black masses.

The most entertaining aspect of all this is that Luigi Cascioli is being represented, at the European Court of Human Rights, by that well known 'important international lawyer' Mr Giovanni di Stefano. If you want to know why that's entertaining, go here, here, and here.

99 Burning

99 Burning's issue 9 is out. It's just as rude, bad-tempered and pushy as ever, urging you to read something or be labelled a dipshit. The article by Jim Cherry, said to be about the publishing industry, seems to me to be about music. Or are we expected to draw parallels?


Then there's Litro, described as original fiction for the underground -- in more senses than one. What happens is, Mike Fell prints up stories and hands them out free to people going into one of London's underground stations. And you're invited to submit stories of your own.

Well, there's more ways than one to find readers, and some of the stories are also posted online at the Litro site. I recommend Mumbo Jumbo by Lynsey Calderwood. This is, at first sight, tough going because it's written in a kind of Trainspottingese, or Scots. But stick with it -- it's worth it. All in all, the Litro site is more professional and impressive than I thought it was going to be.

Litro also tells me that Foyles Bookshop hold short story readings on the last Friday of every month (in London, that is). Go to Decongested for details. It seems they've contracted Arts Council funding, which can be a fatal disease, so we must hope that they all feel better soon.

Tami Brady on the real You

Tami Brady has a new book out from the Loving Healing Press. Entitled The Complete Being: Finding and Loving the Real You, it is a bit too touchy-feely for me, but it may be exactly what you're looking for.

Tami is an archaeological contractor. (Look, I keep telling you I don't make these things up, OK?) And she is founder, editor, and reviewer for TCM Reviews, which seems to offer an essentially free review service, plus a number of for-pay promotional packages.

Loving Healing Press is what I would describe as a new-age publisher, but it certainly has an interesting range of books which are fully described on the web site. They have also taken advantage of Amazon's facilities to launch a publiblog -- something that I had heard about but not seen before.

The blog offers an intriguing account of how one of the firm's books came to be written: David Powell's autobiographical story of how a tour of duty in Vietnam nearly destroyed him mentally, and how he finally managed to recover.

Bill Liversidge on Octavia Randolph

Bill Liversidge is one of those with some faith in the digital revolution and the internet-viral marketing model -- at any rate as a device for interesting mainstream publishers who might recognise a powerful online performance, in terms of generating readers, and buy a book on the strength of it. But his faith is severely tested by the communication he has had from Octavia Randolph.

Nip over to the Pundy House and read it for yourself. But basically Octavia has concluded that even a large online readership counts for naught in the book worlds of London and New York.

My site receives over 50,000 readers a month, from more than 60 nations. On it I have three complete historical novels, a novella, and scores of essays - over 500,000 words of text. Everything is free....

I'd like to speak to the fact that conventional publishers live in a parallel universe to those of us who publish on the WWW. It wouldn't matter to them how many readers download or access free novels on the internet, because that is just not how they decide their lists.

Hmm. Maybe a rethink is in order.

Octavia's web site has lots of good stuff on it, including an essay on Wyrd: the Role of Fate. I haven't quite figured out yet what impact wyrd has on writers, but I'm working on it. Preliminary interpretation: performing with courage and drive may help you to succeed; but if you're doomed, you're doomed.

And last...

One could go on for ever, it seems. But we must stop somewhere.

If you were wondering where you could buy a set of nipple clamps which can send and receive SMS text messages, and which can simultaneously download knitting patterns off the internet, then I have the answer. They can be found in Little-Frigging-in-the-Wold, where they are manufactured by Norbert Trouser-Quandary.

What a wonderful thing the internet is. Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sue Townsend: Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction

Adrian Mole is not quite up there with Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Harry Potter; but in the UK his recognition quotient can't be far off that of those three other literary giants. Outside the UK I don't think Adrian is anything like so well known; I have a suspicion that he doesn't travel well. No matter, he is much appreciated in England, and this latest book about him is wonderful.

First a few words about Adrian's history; then something about his creator, Sue Townsend. And finally a brief account of the book.

Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 was published in 1982. It was, as the title tells us, the diary of an angst-ridden teenager; it was very funny, and a huge seller. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction is, by my count, the sixth in the series, and once again the title tells us where we are: the book is set at the time of the Iraq war (it covers September 2002 to July 2004, to be precise), and at the start of it Adrian is 34.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Adrian has his own web site, where there is lots more information about him.

The onlie begetter of young Adrian is Sue Townsend, a woman who deserves your warmest admiration (though she wouldn't thank me for saying so). Born in 1946, she left school at the age of 15 and had a number of modest jobs in factories and shops. She began writing immediately, but had little success for twenty years. Then she won a prize for a television play, which got her started. Since then she has written quite a number of books and several successful plays. Not the least of these is The Queen and I, which has the royal family deposed from the monarchy and forced to live a normal life on a housing estate in a provincial city; it's also available as a novel.

Sue is a very private person and avoids the celebrity circuit. But I can tell you that she is the mother of five children, is a lifelong Socialist, and since 2001 has been registered blind. Diabetes is what did the damage to her eyes, and you can read all about it in an interview that she gave to Balance, which is a magazine for diabetics.

She still has some small amount of vision, and manages to write by using inch-high letters in thick black marker pen. She only gets about 30 words to a page and reads it back with the aid of a magnifying machine attached to a computer. This is, naturally, a laborious way of working, and I take my hat off to anyone who can write a 460-page novel under those circumstances.

Anyone not yet acquainted with Adrian will soon get the hang of him from the first page of the new novel. He is writing a letting to our glorious leader, Mr Blair. 'Dear Mr Blair,' he begins, in a letter dated 29 September 2002. 'You may remember me -- we met at a Norwegian Leather Industry reception at the House of Commons in 1999.'

In other words, Adrian is one of those people who are really quite bright, but who somehow or other manage to live in a different universe from the rest of us. He is a direct descendant of that other notable diarist, Mr Pooter.

Adrian is currently working in a secondhand-book shop (run by an amiable old gent called Carlton-Hayes); in his spare time he is acting as chairman of a creative-writing group, and he is also worrying about his 17-year-old son, Glenn, who is in the army and may be sent to Iraq.

Adrian has a long history of involvement with women. His great abiding passion is for Pandora Braithwaite, once a teenage girlfriend and now a junior minister in the Blair government. Then there's Sharon, mother of Glenn; there's a Nigerian princess, mother of Adrian's son William, who has been taken to live in Nigeria but misses his Dad. And in the present book Adrian gets himself engaged to the ghastly Marigold, though he can't stand the dreadful neurotic woman, and much prefers her sister Daisy, with whom he has a passionate affair.

On top of that, Adrian succumbs to the contemporary disease of over-spending. People keep sending him these credit cards, you see, and as he's feeling rather depressed about Glenn and the WMD he keeps buying things. By page 267 his minimum monthly repayments already exceed his monthly pay cheque, and the situation deteriorates further after that.

Shining through this portrait of the clueless but well meaning Adrian Mole are a number of political points. Adrian is portrayed as a man whose friends regard him as a kind and likeable person, but as something of a simpleton. He is a man capable of writing things like this: 'How anybody could doubt Mr Blair's word is a mystery to me. The man radiates honesty and sincerity.' So you really don't need to be particularly perspicacious to realise that Sue Townsend has total contempt for Blair and New Labour and their wretched war. At least Adrian's old flame Pandora has the good sense to resign from the government in protest.

In the shape of Adrian's friend Nigel, who is going blind, we also have someone who speaks for the author. Nigel does not take kindly to losing his sight. And he is not grateful when people ask him things like whether his hearing has improved now that he can no longer see. In his spare time Adrian reads Private Eye aloud to Nigel -- an experience which might teach him something about how the world really works -- but Nigel is driven to comment thoughtfully, 'You don't understand half of what you're reading, do you, Moley?'

All in all, this latest episode in the difficult life of Adrian Mole is a delightful read. It is not without its darker passages: you can't run a war without someone getting badly hurt or even killed. But it is a book written by a very warm-hearted, decent woman, and it shows. She equips the hapless Adrian with enough good friends to help him out of all the dreadful messes that he gets himself into, and the ending is a happy one. So much so that it made me cry. But then I always was a sentimental old fool.

Rumour has it that this is to be the last in the Adrian Mole series. That would be sad but, in the circumstances, entirely understandable.