Thursday, November 30, 2006

MNW update

Macmillan New Writing (MNW) is an imprint which was announced last year, and launched in April this year.

The whole purpose of MNW is to publish first novels, in any genre, and to do so as economically as possible. Theoretically, at least, this should, in the long run, benefit all interested parties: publisher, writer, and reader.

The MNW initiative was one that I welcomed when it was announced, but many observers of the book scene were much less enthusiastic. See my posts of 3 May 2005 and 25 May 2005 for details.

In due course the imprint was launched, and a fair amount of publicity resulted. The first few books probably did rather better, in terms of sales, than the typical first novel.

Now, however, the monthly novel issued by MNW is just another book. It has to fight for attention in competition with the 30 other novels a day (or thereabouts) which are published in the UK. Given that each MNW novel that appears is likely to be in a completely different genre from the previous month's, this is no easy task.

Bear all that in mind, then, when I come to tell about the latest batch of three MNW books which have come my way. And remember, too, that each MNW novel has had to compete against several hundred, if not thousand, other books which have been submitted to the MNW editors by hopeful would-be novelists.

Samantha Grosser: Another Time and Place

This, one can safely say, is a love story, set in the second world war. American pilot Tom Blake is having tea (what else) in an English cafe when he sees a young woman. And so on...

It is worth noting (particularly by all those keen and eager young writers out there) that Samantha relates that she spent two years reading nothing except books which would give her a feeling for what life was like in World War II. There's dedication for you. Also worth noting is that she wrote 17 drafts of this book.

Samantha has a blog in which she tells us how she is getting on with marketing this novel (just out) and working on the next.

Jonathan Drapes: Never Admit to Beige

Due for publication on 1 December, Never Admit to Beige is a... Hmmm. Bit hard to classify. Humorous fantasy possibly. Anyway, the story involves a very English chap called Trigg Harvey, who has lost his luck and wanders around Australia in search of it. Along the way he has to deal with the head of the Japanese Mafia on the Gold Coast.

I must confess that I don't like the title or the cover image very much, but probably that's just me. And goodness knows the world could do with more humorous writers.

Jonathan also has a web site, on which we learn that he has had some success as a short-story writer. But he doesn't make his stories available online. Which is a mistake, I feel. Showing people what you can do is always a good thing. You do get some samples of his cartoons, though.

M.F.W. Curran: The Secret War

The year is 1815, when angels and daemons walked our streets.... So that's straightforward enough. Fantasy. To be precise, historical fantasy, beginning at the battle of Waterloo. And this book will be published on 5 January 2007.

Captain William Saxon and Lieutenant Kieran Harte, survivors of Waterloo, become involved in a secret war between Heaven and Hell. Daemons and angels, vampyres and knights, clash for the future of mankind. And the Vatican, needless to say, has clandestine ambitions. The Vatican always has clandestine ambitions. There must be a book somewhere in which it doesn't, but I've never come across it yet.

Oh, and by the way, this one was fifteen years in the writing. I just thought I'd tell you that to encourage you.

More info on M.F.W. Curran's web site, which also has a blog in which he discusses 'the highs and lows of being published.' Lows? How can there be any lows?

Last thoughts

With the possible exception of the middle one, these three books fall into well defined genres, and therefore, in principle, the publisher should be well aware of where to send review copies and so forth.

But there is still a bit of a problem. If MNW was doing one crime novel a month, say, then everyone would get used to the idea. But when MNW does a crime novel in January, two more in October and November, and then no more until the following July, it all gets a bit iffy. Somehow it lacks momentum.

And what of the retailers? They were supportive initially, one hears, but as each new issue comes out they don't know immediately where to put it. They have to take a look at it and, perhaps scratch their heads.

Still, it's all a good idea in principle. And if you can fight your way through the competition, to the point where you actually get offered an MNW contract, I maintain that this is still a better than average way to launch what might turn out to be a career.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Haruki Murakami and the workings of fate

I have been reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I can't say that I recommend it, but I think it is at least worth mentioning.

I went out of my way to find a copy of Kafka on the Shore because I read somewhere that it had won the 2006
World Fantasy Award for best novel. Which isn't an infallible guide to something that I might like, but I live in hope.

As it turns out I wasn't enthralled by the book. In fact I wouldn't have read beyond the first twenty pages had I not known that somebody, somewhere, must have seen something in it. So I persevered. Right, with some skipping, to the end, 500 pages later.

Kafka on the Shore is fantasy all right. Not much about it makes sense, in terms of the real world. Very little is explained. And nothing in it is what you might call normal.

There are two principal characters: Kafka himself, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from home; and Mr Nakata, aged 60-something, who has been left with a very low IQ as the result of a mysterious childhood experience, but who can talk to cats.

Kafka and Mr Nakata wander their separate ways through various mildly interesting adventures and experiences, in alternate chapters, until in the end their stories intertwine. Sort of. Kafka is a vaguely Oedipus-related figure, and Mr Nakata is some sort of savant, possessed by a spirit perhaps. Certainly something emerges from him when he dies.

So this novel is all very slow, very odd, and definitely an acquired taste. I imagine it works better if you're Japanese.

In fact, round about page 382, it occurred to me that the Japanese may find it hilarious; or at least certain parts of it. In chapter 38, Mr Hoshino hires a car. He tells the car-hire firm that he wants a car which will not be noticed.

'Maybe I shouldn't say this,' the rental assistant says, 'but since we only rent Mazdas, we don't have a single car that stands out. So rest assured.'

Now I'm not sure, but I suspect that, at this point, Japanese readers will be rolling all over the carpet. And, just in case we haven't got it, the author tells us that the white Mazda was 'totally unobstrusive. Turn away from it for a moment and every memory of what it looked like had vanished. A notable achievement in the field of anonymity.'

It occurred to me, when I read that, that Japan is (as I understand it) such a highly structured, highly regimented and highly formalised country that the adventures of Kafka and Nakata may be fascinating to Japanese readers.

There are masses of references to European culture, covering everything from Beethoven to jazz. We learn, for example, that reciting passages of Hegel can prevent premature ejaculation; we are told (quite an interesting insight) that until Edison invented electric light, most of the world was covered in darkness: the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.

There are ghosts, mysterious visitations in the night, embodiments of Johnnie Walker (the whisky fellow) and Colonel Sanders (chicken), occasional flashes of graphic sex and nastiness -- and a lot more. For a fuller description,
see Wikipedia.

Overall, however, the novel was not, for me, a success. It is more rewarding to think about in retrospect than it was to read. I found it far too long, too slow, and more than a little self-indulgent.

What really interests me about the book, however, is its reception in the critical world.

An average reader, picking up Kafka on the Shore, and just starting to read it without any knowledge of its author and his standing, would, as I suggested earlier, abandon it pretty quickly.

We may reasonably assume, I think, that any western publisher's reader, faced with this book in the form of a pile of manuscript from a totally unknown author, would quickly decide that it wasn't for him.

Haruki Murakami, however, has a track record. Details can be found on his
official web site. And gradually, over the years, he has attracted attention all over the world. And I am struck, once again, by the question of how and why it should come about that Murakami should have made some sort of name for himself while a thousand others, writing the same sort of books, would have got nowhere.

My conclusion, not for the first time, is that the line between success and failure in the book world is an arbitrary one. The side of it on which you fall is determined, in my view, by a factor which is variously named as luck, chance, fate, happenstance, circumstance, karma... and by the term which, influenced by
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I prefer, namely randomness.

For a fuller discussion of the role of randomness, see my lengthy (free) essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. Or, for a shorter sniff of the same theory, see my essay on
the Booker Prize.

All of which reminded me of something that I might have mentioned yesterday, except that there is no online link.

Last Saturday's Times told the story of Alison Penton Harper. The article is not, as I say, online, so you'll have to make do with a
similar piece provided by her publisher. Alison entered the Richard & Judy competition for new novelists, and was one of 26 shortlisted finalists out of 46,000 applicants. She was eventually placed in the last four.

Side by side with this interview, the Times ran a piece on luck. This maintained that there is 'scientific evidence' that you can improve your luck by 'engaging with it positively'. If you want to know the details of this astounding technique, fear not. It is all set out for you in a book called The Luck Factor, by
Dr Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire.

Personally, whenever I hear the term 'scientific evidence', I reach for my pistol, and I haven't read The Luck Factor either. On the whole, however, I would not hold out too much hope that reading it will enable you to write books like Kafka on the Shore and, as a result, become rich, famous, and successful.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tuesday assembly

OK, you may be sick of it, but you can always skip the first bit.

O.J.'s ghost

The Los Angeles Times has a piece on O.J.'s ghostwriter, Pablo Fenjves. In it, Fenjves is quoted as holding an opinion which has been voiced here from time to time.

When interviewed on KABC-AM radio show, Fenjves said that ghostwriting was the best of all worlds for a writer. It provided steady, lucrative pay and uncomplicated work. Another perk of the job, he said, was anonymity. (Normally, that is.)

For If I Did It, Fenjves was reputedly paid $100,000 for two to three months of work. (Link from Publishers Lunch.)

Meanwhile, Galleycat points out that Fenjves is interviewed in the latest New Yorker. So now he's gonna famous for fifteen minutes (again; he was a witness in the trial).

Galleycat also reports that Steven Zeitchik, in Variety, has news about the ownership of various O.J. project rights, which certainly interests me. The TV stuff, Zeitchik thinks, is owned by Fox, which will bury it three miles underground. (Shame.) But the book rights have reverted 'to the O.J. camp'. Which means O.J. can sell it on. And why not, from his point of view. He was, reportedly, due to earn no royalties from the Regan publication, but now it's a whole new world of opportunity.

He could do it on Lulu, if all else fails. Now that would be really interesting. I wonder if the Lulu guys have enough smarts to be on the phone to him.

Fenjves is in no doubt about the commercial success of If I Did It, when it appears. “It’s going to be bigger than ever,” he said. “It’s like ‘Ulysses,’ except without the talent.”

There is much speculation about the fate of Judith Regan. Am I alone in finding that woman very stimulating? In so far as a 67-year-old man can be stimulated.

Scarlett Thomas

There's an essay by Scarlett Thomas which is worth reading. (Link from M.J. Rose, who picked it up from Sarah Weinman.) The only problem with the damn thing is that it's white text on dark grey, which makes my head spin.

Scarlett wonders aloud about the differences between men and women in the publishing world. And also wonders whether an author can write in several genres and survive.

My answer to the latter question is a definite No. Not, that is, if you want to be published by mainstream firms. Maybe, just maybe, you can do it with a change of name (John Banville/Benjamin Black et cetera), but usually you can't do it at all.

One of my own problems as a writer was that I got bored doing the same book over again. But that is what publishers want. If you want to write different kinds of stuff, just accept from the beginning that Lulu is going to be your outlet.

The quote of Scarlett's that I like best is this: 'Like any other industry, publishing is pretty murky behind the scenes.'

If the Scarlett Johnson essay doesn't bring you to your senses about publishing, then nothing that I can say will make any difference. From now on, it's not my fault, OK?

Plagiarism x 2?

Yesterday's Times, and a lot of other papers, carried a comment or two about the suggestion that Ian McEwan's Atonement (shortlisted for the Booker and currently being filmed) had plagiarised the wartime memoirs of romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews, who died recently.

Well, I haven't read Atonement or the memoirs, let alone compared them side by side, so I'm not in a position to make a specific judgement. In general, however, I would say that any novelist who writes about the past (or even the present) needs to do quite a lot of research into the nature of those times.

At the end of The Night Watch, for example, Sarah Waters listed a large number of books that she had consulted. I did the same with my novel Beautiful Lady. If you acknowledge your sources from the start, and make sensible use of them rather than lifting passages wholesale, then there should not normally be a problem.

Meanwhile, Madame Arcati reports a much more serious and obvious case of plagiarism. Last May, John Blake published a ghosted autobiography of April Ashley. The ghost was Douglas Thompson. Now all the unsold copies have had to be pulped because Duncan Fallowell, author of the 1982 April Ashley's Odyssey, read the new book, did a few calculations, and concluded that two thirds of it were a straight reprint of his own book.

Bloody hell eh? Two thirds. Not just the odd sentence, or anecdote, but (reportedly) a paste and scissors job. As the whole book is available online, this probably wasn't too arduous. Not even any retyping involved.

In a later note, Madame relates that April herself knew nothing of all this until she read it in Madame's blog. Crumbs.

Mind you, this rather proves what I said the other day, namely that them as has their autobiographies ghosted often don't bother to read the book.

Short notes

If you live in the Tampa Bay area, or are visiting, the Tampa Book Buzz is a useful source of info.

Giles Ward's novel 100 Ways to Improve the World is about a disillusioned carpet salesman; it's described as a tale of murder and lust with tufted cut pile twist. It's published by Impress Books.

Charles J Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, is now working on the authorised biography of Kurt Vonnegut. He would like to hear from any readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels. Contact:

Alex Scarrow's new thriller, A Thousand Suns, has a fancypants book trailer on YouTube. Scared the pants off me. Publisher is Orion.

Jane Fletcher lives near Avebury and has some beautiful pics of the stones. She also writes dark fantasy and is a bit of a pagan. Dismissive critics get turned into frogs, so watch it.

Scott Pack provides some interesting insights into how publishers persuade retailers to stock their books -- and then complain if the retailers sell the advance copies which are more or less forced upon them. As with the case of TV copyright owners complaining about YouTube, this is a case of the suits not being smart enough. My view: if a publisher complains that you gave away or sold his precious ARC, that's what your first two fingers are for. (Link from Clive Keeble.)

Marti Lawrence, who wrote the freebie ebook about using Squidoo, has also written a novel. You can read it free online or even buy one.

Kourosh Ziabari is a 16-year-old Persian lad who blogs in English and is said to be the 'world's youngest journalist'. For someone who lives in a country which he describes (14 November) as 'the greatest prison for journalists' he is a bit on the outspoken side. And let's face it, you and I couldn't blog in Persian even now, let alone when we were sixteen, so I think this chap will go far.

Have you ever complained when the paper boy was a bit late in delivering your morning Times? If so, just consider the situation of novelist Carolyne Aarsen, who lives, I think we could say, a bit off the beaten track.

Tonto Press have announced the winner of their New Novelist project. Out of 400 entries, Pete Tanton came first.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Benjamin Black: Christine Falls

The publishers (Picador) make no secret of the fact that Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of last year's Booker prize winner, the Irish writer John Banville. Banville, it seems, has decided to write crime fiction from time to time, and for that purpose has chosen a new brand-name, to distinguish the crime novels from the literary.

All of which is sensible enough.

Christine Falls is described by the publisher as a 'crime thriller', and as such it scores about 7 out of 10, in my judgement. Not bad, then, for a beginner.

The novel is set in 1950s Dublin -- or so the back cover of the book says. But we are never given the precise date, and we don't even get any hints, from the names of Prime Ministers or Presidents, as to the decade. The casual reader, who knows nothing of Irish history and culture, might be forgiven for thinking that she was in the present day.

The principal character in Christine Falls is a man called Quirke. He is a pathologist by profession, and a widower. Again referring to the back cover of the book, we are told that Quirke is 'a truly original addition to the pantheon of crime fiction detectives', and so one gathers that he is to feature in a series of books. But original? Scarcely.

The story begins when Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, in the pathology department. Griffin, a paediatrician, is busy entering false information on the death certificate of a young woman called Christine Falls. And this triggers off Quirke's determination to find out who Christine Falls was, and how and why she died.

The virtues of Christine Falls are that Benjamin Black understands the time and the culture that he is writing about, and portrays it very well. I am only an occasional visitor to Ireland, but I find it fascinating to observe the changes that have taken place there over the past forty or fifty years.

In the 1950s Ireland was a theocracy: it was governed, effectively, by the Church, which means the Roman Catholic Church. Only the weekend before last, I was at a party in Ireland at which a woman of my own age reminded me of what I already knew, namely that, in times past, the Church controlled everything. Not only Church affairs (of course), but politics, business, and the arts. Probably sport too.

Now, said my informant, that had largely gone. Partly as a result of revelations of child abuse by priests, partly because of the influence of the outside world, through books, television, films, and the internet, the Church had lost its grip. My informant, a lapsed Catholic herself, largely approved of that. But what had also been lost, she said, was the discipline. The baby had gone out with the bath water, and she wasn't happy with the result.

Such rapid changes in a society over a relatively short period of time will provide, of course, enough material for a dozen novels; and perhaps that's what Black/Banville intends to show us. Though as his protagonist is in his forties, he may have to swap him at a certain stage.

In any event, what we have here is principally a portrait of a time and a place, of certain sets of assumptions about the right and wrong way to do things, and of the good and bad consequences which can result. For me, at least, it was an interesting novel.

The shortcomings of Christine Falls are, however considerable.

To begin with, it is labelled 'crime thriller'. But where is the crime? I've found more in an episode of Balamory. There's the falsification of the death certificate; a bit of GBH when Quirke is beaten up; and some wilful breaches of the US immigration laws (which are hastily skated over, I note), and... that's it. There's no murder, let alone a series thereof.

As for a thriller... Not really. Black even fluffs the scene where Quirke is beaten up, because Quirke realises almost at once that the men have been sent to hurt him, not kill him. (Hint: next time, Ben, have Quirke think he's going to die, and then have him wake up in hospital and be told by a doctor that the men obviously didn't intend to kill him because they kicked him everywhere but on the head.)

In terms of its stated genre, therefore, Christine Falls is a bit of a non-starter. It's more like a mainstream novel. As such it held my attention all right, but it's not what it says on the label.

What really annoyed me about his book, however, was a failure in elementary narrative technique. Or perhaps I should say that the failure disappointed me. I certainly wasn't surprised by it, because literary folk seem to me to be fairly clueless when it comes to the vulgar business of keeping the reader glued to the page.

The plain fact is, Black simply doesn't know how to use viewpoint properly.

My own beliefs about the most effective point of view were set out on this blog some time ago, in a series of five posts beginning on 4 November 2004. I won't repeat myself here.

Suffice it to say that I firmly believe, as do many others who know what they're talking about, that the most effective way to write a novel these days is from what has been called the 'main-character viewpoint'. In other words, you describe the action as it is experienced by one principal character at a time. By all means vary the point of view, by allowing us to see the world through other characters' eyes. But stick to one point of view in each chapter -- otherwise the modern reader (if she has any sensitivity to what she is reading) experiences a nasty sense of dislocation.

Twice in the first ten pages, Black mucks us about. We start a chapter from the point of view of one person, and then suddenly lurch into another. My note for page 9 says: We are all over the bloody place, chopping and changing like a drunken sailor. The poor bloody reader is left [excuse the mixed metaphors] like a man in five feet of moving water, trying desperately to find his footing, and, for the most part, failing. What [my note asks rhetorically]was Ed Victor doing?

Ed Victor, for them as hasn't heard of him, is Banville/Black's agent, and a mighty power in the land. Well, ole Ed may be good at holding a gun to publishers' heads, but, despite working with Jack Higgins, he apparently still has something to learn about how to write an effective piece of commercial fiction. And for that matter, why didn't the editors at Picador sort this sort? Oh, but then, of course, Picador is a literary imprint, and the gentlefolk there don't dirty their hands with such sordid matters as telling a story effectively.

This clumsy handling of viewpoint continues throughout the book. And there are other signs of inexperience in this genre too. On page 53, a piece of backstory is conveyed in a remarkably clumsy manner:

'Did they beat you in that place you were in, in Connemara -- what was the name of it?'

'Carricklea Industrial School, so-called. Yes, they beat us. Why wouldn't they?'

And so on.

Fortunately, there are compensations for these irritations. On page 272, for instance, we get a very good insight into the way in which, as my recent informant reminded me, the Church fixed everything.

Sister Stephanus came back into the room, shaking her head. 'Dear Lord,' she said wearily, 'what a business.' She turned to the priest. 'Did the Archbishop...?'

He nodded. 'I spoke to his office. His people will have a word with the Commissioner -- there'll be no need for the police to get involved.'

So, as I say, 7 out of 10. Could do better.

I have remarked here before that the people who understand best how to write commercial fiction are the agents who have to sell it, week in and week out. Of these, the current leader is Al Zuckerman, founder of Writers House and author of Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Perhaps Ed Victor should swallow his pride and send his man for an afternoon's training by Dr Al. Go on, Ed. It'll be worth it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Friday things

More on O.J.

Answers -- of a sort -- to some of the questions that I posed on Tuesday are beginning to emerge. Most of them are summarised by Publishers Lunch, drawing on US press reports.

You may remember that I wondered aloud about who initiated the book that dare not show its face in the first place. Was it O.J. himself, an agent, lawyer, publisher, friend of his late wife's, or who?

Publishers Lunch (using the Wall Street Journal* as source) quotes Yale Galanter, O.J.'s usual lawyer/spokesman, who says, 'It wasn't ours to begin with,' adding, 'The project started, was conceived with and always belonged to HarperCollins.'

(*Note: the WSJ is one of those papers with a death wish that won't let you in unless you're a subscriber.)

In other words, if I read this aright, the project began in the devious mind of Judith Regan, which surprises me not at all. And if she dreamed it up, I would expect her to control every aspect of it. Which, I imagine, others in the HarperCollins arena would not be unhappy about, because then she could take all the blame.

And what about the money -- which is what it's all about really -- who's been paid and how much? Galanter says, 'He [O.J.] doesn't have a reaction one way or the other [to Murdoch's decision to dump the book] because all of his contractual obligations have been fulfilled.' He adds: 'There were no contingencies about it being published, or how many copies had to be sold or any of that stuff. All that's done.' He admits Simpson was compensated already and says those obligations 'weren't contingent upon any type of book or interview.'

Which I take to mean that O.J. got paid a flat fee up front. We don't know how much, but the figure originally suggested in the National Enquirer was $3.5 million. PL thinks that attorneys acting on behalf of the murdered woman's family will force a disclosure of the actual figure in due course.

The ghost writer for If I Did It was Pablo Fenjves, a former co-worker of Judith Regan's at the National Enquirer, who was also a witness for the prosecution in O.J.'s criminal trial (he heard a dog barking, which apparently was enough to get him on the witness stand).

Finally, if you are remotely interested, PL points out that the page for the book is still up, and you can read some customer reactions, the most interesting of which are perhaps the tags that people have attached to the book: e.g. boycott (49), disgusted (31), and so forth.

Selling yourself for fun and profit

Ever heard of Squidoo? You probably should have. Anyway, if you're a writer, looking for yet another way to get your name known for zero money, Marti has a free ebook that tells you how to do it. She seems to have alarming amounts of energy.


An agent once reminded me, when she thought that I was approaching something in an excessively objective manner, 'You know, Michael, 'this is a very friendly business.'

How friendly is made clear in a post by bookseller Bob Gray, who takes a dim view of Random House 'letting go' an elder statesman of the travelling rep brigade. (Link from Lynne Scanlon.)

24 varieties of anger

If you are interested in the effect that emotion has on physical health, then you might, perhaps, be interested in Brenda Shoshanna's new book, The Anger Diet. I don't say I recommend it, please note -- because for one thing I haven't read it. But I just say that if you are interested in mind/body interaction you might be interested in Shoshanna's identification of 24 kinds of anger and ways to deal with them.

Collaborative authorship

A formidably complicated project is under way which will allow a million (give or take a few) contributors to write a book on good practice in business management. It's all very Web 2.0 and Wiki and all like that. Big names are involved: Pearson, Wharton, MIT.

Still in fashion

Sex is apparently not about to go out of fashion. Publishers Lunch announces that Jennifer Stevenson has contracted with Del Rey (agent Donald Maass) for a series of books which will probably be called The Sex Files.

One of these, Brass Bed, is about an English lord who is bound to a brass bed by a witch's curse until he satisfies 100 women -- the one hundredth being a Chicago fraud detective called Jewel Heiss.

Good grief, this Stevenson woman clearly has a deranged imagination and her books should be denounced by all right-thinking persons. If you wish to dispose of your ARC, send it to me and I will see that it is dealt with appropriately.

Great minds

In search of plagiarists, Paul Collins discovers that, er... lots of people use similar phrases. Unless you happen to write 'It seems to me that this should not be unusual', in which case, apparently, you're on your own. (Link from Literary Saloon.)

Slava's Snow Show

Yesterday evening to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see Slava's Snow Show. This is hard to describe. It certainly isn't a play -- not a line of English spoken all evening, and only a sentence or two in anything. It isn't a musical, in the ordinary sense. Neither is it ballet or opera. It isn't circus, though Slava is often described as a great clown. There is certainly quite a lot of mime.

In any event it's very beautiful and enthralling and funny, and you should see it if you get the chance. The tour of England finishes this week, but it's been seen all over the world and it is in the Teatro Olimpico in Rome in December. Find it if you can.

It's Russian, originally.

Digital doings

If you are interested in the impact of new technology on printing and publishing, the place to go is Digital Publishing News.

The first big change, DPN claims, is the invention of new display technologies, so called e-paper.
By 2010 these will be commonplace and widely used for reading printed documents including newspapers, books, and magazines, and in so doing will have a profound effect upon all sectors of the publishing industry.

The second technology driven revolution is the arrival of Web 2.0, the next stage in Internet evolution, which thanks to high power personal computers and broadband communications looks set to completely change the way that we all use the Web.
Note to the boys who write this stuff. New technology does not do away with the need to use the occasional comma and hyphen.

Further freaks

Further to my review on Monday, Dave Lull* writes to tell me that Leslie Fiedler wrote a well respected book called Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. 'Witty, erudite, outrageously imaginative,' said the Library Journal, 'Freaks is a sober historical survey of social responses to physical abnormality.'

I always thought old Leslie was slightly barmy myself. It was an article in Esquire that did it. He quoted William Faulkner talking about how a man always hated his wife, and said something along the lines of 'How true'. Speak for yourself, I thought.

*Dave Lull, by the way, must be the world's greatest tipper-offer in the book world. Google "Dave Lull" and see. And by the look of him he reads even more than I do. Can't be good for you, Dave. Try to get out more.

They don't make 'em like that any more

I have been doing some research into Soho recently. More of that later. But I thought you might, just possibly, be interested in an article about Sandy Fawkes, a character who might best be described by that hackneyed term 'colourful'.

Sandy was one of those formidable drinkers who drift into Soho, find their own favourite position on the end of a bar in one of the famous pubs, and then stay there more or less for ever. See my bit on Julian Maclaren-Ross for news of a few more of the same.

Can you bear it?

I don't care to tackle the book myself, but, for those strong enough, Alan Hall and Michael Leidig have written a book called Girl in the Cellar. This is an account of the ordeal of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was kidnapped at the age of ten and held prisoner for eight years. Excerpts can be found in the Times this week.

Latin is such fun

Do you remember how much fun your Latin lessons were? No, no, don't go away. They weren't as bad as all that. And Joel Rickett (deputy editor of the Bookseller) points out that a little book called Amo, Amas, Amat and All That is selling very nicely (1,000 copies a week) as a Christmas-stocking filler.

Rickett also reckons, by the way, that Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is going to surprise everyone with its sales this Christmas. 'Its a real heavyweight book,' he said. '... but every year, there's something that comes from leftfield and I think this is it.'

Not another one!

The Times reports that Rudolph K has been nicking rare books from the University of Erlangen in southern Germany. Estimated value £541,000. That bloke in Manchester was an amateur by comparison.

Blair and Archer

I made reference, the other day, to that undeservedly criticised and much-put-upon chap, Jeffrey Archer. And a correspondent reminds me that, by a complete coincidence, there is also a chap called Archer in John Morrison's 2005 book, Anthony Blair, Captain of School. So here, just to set the right tone for the weekend, is a brief extract from the epilogue to that novel -- an epilogue in which, I may say, something very nasty happens.

But we will not dwell on that. Let us, instead, draw moral succour from the fact that chaps who get into a spot of bother here and there can always redeem themselves. Well, more or less.
'Did they really send you down at the Old Bailey? What happened, exactly?'
Archer paused again. He drew a circle in the sand, and continued.
'Some business about share certificates, and loans, and promissory notes. I won't bore you with the details. Take my advice, never trust a lawyer and especially not a judge. I now know, the prisons are full of innocent men who have been tripped up by the law.'
'How awful,' said Blair, shaking his head.
'When they let me out, I travelled here and decided to stay. And how about you? I heard about the Mesopotamia business.'
'I was innocent too,' said Blair. 'But I managed to stay one step ahead of the lawyers. The way I see it, you have to follow God and your conscience. What counts is knowing, deep down inside, that you're doing the right thing.'
'Good for you, old chap,' said Archer. 'Wish I had. Of course, I wasn't religious back then. That might have helped. At least I never got anyone killed.'
Blair decided to change the subject. 'Did you ever get that novel published?' he asked.
'Not yet. Publishers are such duffers. But I'm going to persevere.'
'I might try writing a novel some day. The mater always said I was good at making things up.'

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Watch out for Aultbea

The Independent this week reveals that our old friends Aultbea Publishing Ltd. are about to publish a book by one of the world's youngest authors. (Thanks to Nicholas Clee for the Indie link.)

Christopher Beale, aged six and a bit, has written a 1,500-word, five-chapter 'novel', entitled This and Last Season's Excursions. Publication date is 25 November.

Aultbea specialises in publishing the work of young authors, and the 'owner' of the company, Charles Faulkner, has a history of obtaining masses of publicity for them. If past performance is any guide, therefore, the next week or so should see a spate of national newspaper interviews and items on television news about young Christopher Beale. Watch out for them.

The Aultbea operation has been discussed here, at wearisome length, on several occasions. If you have the strength and patience to consider the matter, useful summaries were posted here on 30 June 2005 and on 18 July 2006.

Briefly, Aultbea is a very small publishing company. According to several reports that have reached me, some of them in the form of comments on my post of 18 July, it is common practice for Aultbea to shower praise on a submitted manuscript, and to suggest to the author that fame and fortune are shortly to be his -- provided, of course, that he coughs up £10,000 or so to finance the operation.

Now in principle there is nothing untoward about asking an author to contribute to the cost of publication (see 18 July for further comment); quite a number of firms have historically done this in an ethical way. And I do not wish to seem vindictive towards Aultbea.

Nevertheless, I note that the Aultbea web site is quite remarkably uninformative about any number of aspects of the company's modus operandi. And, if I were a newspaper editor or reporter, faced with an Aultbea press release about the Christopher Beale book, I really think I would want answers to a number of questions before giving it space.

For my own part, just based on the data already published here, I would be interested to know the following:

Who handles sales and distribution for Aultbea?
What were the Bookscan sales figures for Emma Marie Urquhart's Dragon Tamers? (The book was famous for 15 minutes.)
How many of the stated 50,000 print run for that book remain?
Why did Aultbea 'pull out' of the reported Hollywood film deal for Dragon Tamers?
Why are none of Emma Marie Urquhart's books now listed on the Aultbea web site (though some of them are still on
What happened to the other 'multimedia deal' for Dragon Tamers that was 'in late stages of negotiation' in June 2005?

It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent and diligent reporter should be able to formulate a dozen similar questions for himself. For one thing, if you Google "aultbea publishing", then the first hits you get, after two from the firm itself, are GOB posts which suggest that such questioning might be fruitful.

It will be very interesting to see, over the next week or two, whether any media representatives are prepared to trot out the old familiar flim-flam, or whether, on this occasion, they are just a little bit more sceptical, and less ready to reprint Mr Faulkner's press release verbatim.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wednesday wonders

Death on her hands

Last Saturday's Irish Times ran an interview with the State Pathologist, Prof. Marie Cassidy. She does the same job that Quirke does -- Quirke being the main character in Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black, aka Booker prize-winner John Banville, of which more when I've finished reading it.

Of course there are quite a few lady pathologists around these days, particularly in fiction and drama: e.g. Patricia Cornwell's novels and Silent Witness; for the latter, it is suggested, Cassidy was the model. Nevertheless, if I were a trade publisher I would sign up Prof. Cassidy for a ghosted autobiography. Fast.

Jeffrey from the ashes

'You can’t keep a good man down,' says the Sunday Times, 'nor indeed Lord Archer.' How very rude. Bloody true though.

Bestselling novelist Jeffrey Archer, Lord Archer to his friends, was always a shade economical with the truth, and was ever ready to exercise his vivid imagination; the result was that, in 2001, he got sentenced to four years in the slammer for perjury. As is the English way, he served two of the four and then got let out. Since then he has exploited his jail time to the full, with a diary of his prison experiences and a book of stories based on tales told to him by fellow prisoners.

Now he's signed a new three-book contract with Macmillan. The first book, A Prisoner of Birth, tells the story of a man who believes he has been wrongly convicted. Well yes. Quite, quite. Who better to write such a tale than Lord A?

Good old Jeffrey. He's always good for a laugh, isn't he? Provided you have a very black sense of humour. I wonder if book-buyers and booksellers will boycott this one? O.J., after all, was found not guilty, whereas Jeffrey did time. Should be a no-brainer really, shouldn't it?

New founts for old

Speaking of the Times, the old lady has had a rejig. The paper has commissioned and adopted a new fount, which is what the rest of us call a font.

Times New Roman was designed in 1931 by Victor Lardent (so Mr Bringhurst tells me); it had 'a humanist axis but Mannerist proportions, Baroque weight, and a sharp Neoclassical finish.' But you probably knew that already. Now Neville Brody has designed something more in keeping with modern needs.
The new fount, Times Modern, blends the traditional and functional lines of the existing Times New Roman and melds them with sharp angular details to give a condensed face that perfectly fits the smaller-sized newspaper.
I don't like it much, but I may get used to it.

How are the mighty

Fifty years ago, the Reader's Digest was arguably the most successful magazine in the world. Run from a country estate in Pleasantville, Westchester County, the RD seemed to be a permanent fixture. I was interviewed for a job there once, come to think of it. Didn't get it.

But times change, and gradually the magazine lost ground. Now the company has been sold for $1.6 billion. Which is still quite a lot of money, of course. The Telegraph gives details; link from

Salesmanship for the self-publisher

Iqbal Ahmed has an article in the Independent which contains some information which will be useful to any self-publisher. Link from

Slightly Foxed

Slightly Foxed is a 'lively quarterly book review for non-conformists – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.' It ain't cheap, but a year's subscription for a bookish significant other might be a good Christmas present. (And you could always read it yourself afterwards.)

More on McKeith

Gillian McKeith is a UK-based TV food guru. Her basic routine, in several series of half-hour TV shows, is to take a grossly fat and unfit person, persuade them to stop eating junk food and supermarket shit, and start taking exercise. Not surprisingly, this usually brings about a dramatic transformation in a few weeks.

So far so good. Nothing but good done there, you might think. And there are, of course, books to accompany the TV series, and they sell in vast numbers.

However, the lovely Gillian is another one who is a bit economical with the truth, and inclined to exercise her imagination somewhat; some of her more brazen activities were described here in January 2005.

Now there's more. The Times tells us that Gillian has recently been censured by a government watchdog for selling a range of endorsed herbal sex aids without a licence; furthermore, the sex aids don't actually work.

Gillian McKeith is broadly on the side of the angels in that she persuades people to stop killing themselves; but her business methods are questionable. On her web site she still refers to herself as 'Dr' McKeith, even though, as the Times points out, 'her credentials as a scientist have come under suspicion previously as she obtained a PhD from the non-accredited American Holistic College of Nutrition in the United States.'

Susan Hill blacklisted

I come a bit late to this, it seems, but Galleycat gave me an introduction to the story.

Susan Hill, who is a novelist, playwright and publisher, and excels at all three, did a bit on her blog recently in which she argued that the big-time 'professional' reviewers, in the posh literary journals, are increasingly irrelevant. In the process she was a bit outspoken about the ' – with honourable exceptions – arrogant, lazy, stuck-in-the-mud, cliquey little set of literary editors, and/or "mandarins".'

Now she's had an email from one of these arrogant et cetera, telling her that her books will never be reviewed in his/her journal again. And Susan chooses to let him/her be anonymous, which is too kind in my opinion.

Richard Lea in the Guardian will bring you up to date. Clive Keeble and Steve Clackson are among the commenters.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

O.J. Simpson and the book that never was -- yet

I think I’m going to assume that you’re more or less up to speed on black US football star O.J. Simpson and the murder of his wife Nicole, plus friend Ronald Goldman, in 1994.

Suffice it to say that O.J. was charged with murder and got off. Mainly because he paid for a massively high-powered legal defence team, which left the prosecution fighting well above their weight.

I wouldn’t wish to make too many broad statements here, but I think it is fair to say that most Americans, particularly white middle-class Americans, took the view that O.J. was in fact guilty as hell, verdict or no verdict.

A few weeks ago, a story surfaced that O.J. had written a new book in which he described how he thought the murders might have been committed -- speaking, as it were, from the point of view of someone who might have been there but wasn’t. Payment of $3.5 million for this book was mentioned.

Various notable and influential parties declared themselves outraged at the very idea of O.J. making any money out of such a book.

The book story was comprehensively denied by O.J.’s lawyer, Yale Galanter.

Then, last week, we learnt that there really was a book, called If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened. It was going to be published by Regan Books, part of the HarperCollins empire, which is itself part of Rupert Murdoch’s mighty News Corp.

Further expressions of outrage were then heard across the whole of America (and elsewhere). Just by way of example, did a quick and dirty survey of book buyers and booksellers and found that 97% of the former and 96% of the latter declared that they wouldn’t touch a book of that kind.

And then, yesterday or thereabouts, Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp boss man himself, announced that he personally had decided that the O.J. book project would not go ahead. Neither would Fox TV (another Murdoch/News Corp enterprise) be broadcasting the interview with O.J. which had been recorded by Judith Regan, head of Regan books; in that interview, it was said, O.J. as good as confessed to the two murders.

The Murdoch decision is announced in today’s UK Times, which is yet another News Corp publication, of course; and for a possibly more objective account of the decision, you can go to the Independent.

I think I will leave all the moralising about the O.J. publication to others, and just concentrate on a few aspects of the publishing process that I find intriguing.

First, I find it interesting that this book was signed up by Judith Regan. This lady has quite a publishing history, and has been variously described as ‘the enfant terrible of American publishing’, the ‘angriest woman in the media’ and a ‘foul-mouthed tyrant’. A former friend (former, I note) described her as ‘the highest functioning deranged person I've ever known.’

Regan has issued a 2,200 word statement on why she decided to publish If I Did It, and if you care enough about this case to have read this far, I recommend that you read the Regan statement in full. Some will regard it as over-emotional, and excessively personal, and it certainly rambles a bit in places; overall, however, I think it constitutes quite a reasonable rationale for publishing the book; and it also constitutes a pretty good defence of publishing controversial and ‘offensive’ material in general.

Then there’s the TV interview. Regan is no stranger to TV. She once had her own show on Fox, called Judith Regan Tonight. Buried somewhere within the mountain of print and talk which has already accumulated about this matter, there may be a clear statement as to who created the O.J. interview and who owns the rights to it. But I would be surprised, and disappointed in Ms Regan's smarts, if she wasn’t the ultimate owner.

Next, I wonder who actually wrote the new O.J. book. I think we can safely assume that the former football star did not pen it himself. Neither am I being entirely frivolous when I say that I wonder if O.J. actually read what his ghost produced. Many a UK sports star has cheerfully admitted to never having read his own ‘autobiography’, and indeed Roy Keane used that assertion as the main plank in his defence when challenged about the contents of his book.

Who first dreamed up this idea? And who owns the rights to If I Did It? Regan says that she didn't pay O.J. directly. ‘I contracted through a third party who owns the rights, and I was told the money would go to his children.’ If nothing else, this is an unusual way to write a publishing contract, and, judging by his reported statements, O.J.’s usual lawyer knew nothing about it. Publishers Lunch says that Attorney Yale Galanter told the NY Post that he had first learnt of the deal on Monday 13 November. That was the day when Regan recorded her TV interview with O.J., and by that time large numbers of copies of the book had surely been printed.

Speaking of numbers printed, Regan/HarperCollins have not officially announced a figure for the first printing, but Publishers Lunch says that ‘the initial planned cap of a 300,000-copy laydown was exceeded, perhaps by as much as another 100,000 copies. These numbers are essentially confirmed by Harper Canada CEO David Kent in the Toronto Star.’

Now that is one hell of a lot of books. Even 300,000 hardbacks occupy a huge amount of warehouse space and weigh – what? – hundreds of tons? So what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to be pulped? It’s a good many years since I pulped any hardbacks, but I seem to remember that it was technically very difficult; not like paperbacks. And what is the ‘shrinkage’ on this pile of books going to be? In other words, how many of them will walk out of the warehouse of their own accord, soon to surface on eBay? Lots, I expect.

Then there’s the minor problem of contracts. The ‘rights owner’ – as yet unidentified, as far as I know – presumably has a contract which calls for publication. Publishing contracts normally do. If the contract has been unilaterally cancelled, I would expect said rights owner to be able to argue for a considerable sum in compensation. Not to mention the ghostwriter, who may well be in a for a cut of the royalties.

All of that being the case, how come, I wonder, that Rupert Murdoch has had a sudden fit of conscience, outbreak of umbrage, sudden attack of ethics?

My guess is that he hasn’t had any such thing. Rupert has just done some figures on the back of an envelope. He has calculated the cost of dumping this project, and has worked out, without too much difficulty, that it is much less than the cost (to News Corp overall) of letting it go ahead.

Lots of outraged customers, stakeholders, and shareholders, can cause quite a lot of damage to News Corp, far outweighing the potential profit. HarperCollins may be a big company in publishing circles, but it constitutes, as someone once said, but a single pixel on the News Corp screen.

In other words, I see the Murdoch decision not as censorship, which I would object to, but as pure commerce. As such it makes sense.

Other businessmen, however, will also have their calculators out, and will be able to do quite different sums from those of Mr Murdoch. My insights into American culture are these days obtained by, so to speak, squinting through a keyhole into a large room; in other words, I only see a small part of the whole picture. But, ignoring for the moment the noisy Disgusteds of the US equivalent of Tunbridge Wells, my guess is that there are vast numbers of punters out there who would be quite willing to shell out, say, a discounted $20 or so for the O.J. confession.

I would be willing to bet, but for one little thing, that, within twelve months, some other publisher wll have picked up the rights to If I Did It, published the book, and had a number one New York Times bestseller with it.

And what is that one little thing which I think might get in the way of a new publisher for If I Did It?

Ah yes. It’s the fact that we live in the digital age. Where there is a demand, and where there is an expressed intention to suppress the object of desire, we can safely guarantee that somebody, somewhere, will digitise a copy and spread it around.

My wager is that, before too long, the text of If I Did It will be released, by a pirate, online. And so will the video of the TV interview.

Even those unauthorised releases might not entirely kill off an authorised version of the book. Far from it. But if the releases do happen, and if they take away the market for the book, then the rights owners of both book and TV show have an even stronger case for compensation from News Corp.

More, I suspect, later. This one will run and run.

See also:
Madame Arcati
Sara Nelson
If I Did It wikipedia

Monday, November 20, 2006

Armand Marie Leroi: Mutants

Mutants, by Armand Marie Leroi, is not what you might think. It isn't a horror novel, or a piece of science fiction. In fact it isn't fiction at all: it's a serious and scholarly non-fiction work, and its subject is the human body.

More precisely, Mutants is a book about variations in the human body: some of them minor and almost welcome (red hair as opposed to black hair), and some of them not only unwelcome but also frightening and horrible: gross deformities, or mutations, which arise from deficiencies in particular genes, and from the errors made by the machinery that copies or repairs human DNA.

In the course of considering these mutations, Leroi illuminates the current state of research into genetics, and gives us a historical survey of the human fascination with such creatures. He also considers a number of related issues, such as the nature of beauty.

The first thing that a reviewer has to say about Mutants, in all fairness to the reader, is that you need a strong stomach to read the book, and an even stronger one to contemplate the many illustrations.

At least in the case of a Dutch child, born in 1995, with the remains of 21 foetuses (as determined by a leg count) embedded in its brain, we are spared an illustration; though such undoubtedly exist. But if you've ever seen Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, you will know what to expect. (Freaks was banned in the UK for thirty years.)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, medical men were fascinated by these accidents of nature, and the deformed foetuses were preserved and even collected. They were frequently referred to as 'monsters', and to have given birth to one, or even to have delivered it, must have been a frightening experience.

The birth of such a deformed child was widely regarded as a portent of something or other, and the parents would no doubt have been overwhelmed by feelings of shock, horror, and guilt. 'Of all the doctrines that have been occasioned by human deformity,' says Leroi, 'none is more dismal than the belief that it is due to some moral failing.'

As late as the nineteenth century, Leroi tells us, the citizens of Amsterdam bought Willem Vrolik's anatomical collection for the sum of 12,000 guilders. It contained 1503 specimens in all, 360 of them people with various congenital afflictions; most of these were infants preserved in alcohol or formaldehyde.

Many other institutions, such as Guy's Hospital in London, had similar collections. And on a less formal scale, when I worked in a hospital as a student, the mortuary technician showed me a pair of (dead) conjoined twins; they were wrapped up in an old towel and had been kept in cold storage for many years, for no reason whatever beyond their novelty value, as far as I could see.

I will not upset you with a more detailed description of the subject matter of this book. But I would not wish you to think that Mutants is some sort of popular, shock-horror treatment of a faintly revolting subject. It is not a fairground sideshow. It is, rather, a thoughtful and (as far as I can tell) absolutely up to the minute account of how and why things go wrong in the reproduction of humans and other species.

The author of Mutants, Armand Marie Leroi, is a Reader in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, London (a distinguished institution), and he clearly has an encyclopaedic grasp of all the latest research in this field. Some of the book is therefore not readily intelligible to the lay reader.

Nevertheless, the book is clearly, and rightly, intended as reading matter for the interested general reader, as well as the specialist, because the whole question of deformity merges into issues such as the treatment of diseases with a heredity component (such as breast cancer) and the problem of ageing in general.

Also relevant are the effects of certain drugs: thalidomide, for example, gave rise to a large number of phocomelic infants, though such were known before the introduction of that drug. In the eighteenth century, there was a famous Parisian juggler, Marc Cazotte (known as Le Petit Pepin), whose hands and feet were joined directly to his body.

History is, in fact, not short of famous if unfortunate people who were renowned and perhaps honoured for the injuries which genetic fate had done to them. There was Joseph Boruwlaski, a dwarf who was a favourite of the pre-Revolutionary French court. There was the Gonsalvus family of hypertrichotic (hairy) people. Less happily, there were the Ovitz dwarfs, who caught the eye of Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz; some of them even survived his attentions.

Cretins, castrati, hermaphrodites, albinos, and every other kind of human distortion, are all dealt with in this book. But they are dealt with kindly, with a compassionate touch. The causes of their afflictions, if known, are fully described in appropriate scientific terms, and their stories are told in human terms which will carry along those who do not follow the details of the science.

We may not be helped, for example, by the information that the most common cause of albinism is homozygosity for a 2.7 kilobase-pair deletion in the P gene, but it will do us no harm to have a greater awareness of the difficulties which are experienced by albinos; or indeed, by those born piebald, because there are some such.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of this book is, however, the style in which it is written. Not only is it readily comprehensible (apart from the pure science passages), but it is witty, thoughtful, and in places almost poetic.

At one point Leroi tells us, for instance, that 'the fragments of myth, folklore and tradition that remain to us from a pre-scientific age are like the marks left in sand by retreating waves: void of power and meaning, yet still possessed of some order.'

And Leroi is clearly a well-read man. In relation to Alexina Barbin, for example, a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite who was brought up as a girl but who who developed a distressing habit of falling in love with other girls in her convent school (and later had to shave), Leroi reminds us that her case is reminiscent of Stendhal's De l'amour, in that, in the Romantic era, 'to love, to truly love, was to exalt the beloved, to abase oneself, to love without hope of return.'

This book was given to me by a neighbour, who told me frankly that she had offered it to others before me, and they had politely declined. I can understand why. Nevertheless, I learnt something useful from it in the first ten seconds, and you may too. If nothing else, it would provide raw material enough for a dozen novels.

Mutants is a learned, humane, and polished work, the outcome of many years of study and careful thought, and it is full of insights both scientific and intuitive. I am not surprised to find that in 2004 it was the winner of the Guardian's First Book Award. It certainly deserves recognition.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thursday stuff

Galleycat's tales

The Galleycat blog is normally good for a few interesting publishing stories. For example:

Deborah Smith, a mean-looking NYT bestselling author, refers to the 'all-around incompetency of the NY pub houses', and says that Anne Stuart 'succeeded on her own while surviving an enormous amount of publisher bungling that makes it, as I said, a miracle that any author rises out of the shadows to find an audience.'

Some writers really don't like publishers, do they? How could that be?

And then there's the news that O.J. Simpson really is doing a book in which he tells how he would have committed those murders, if he had, except that he didn't, of course.

O.J., even now, is not a name that means much outside the US, but this story reminds me that, if only I'd had the wit, I could have won some money for charity at the time of the original O.J. trial.

At that time my boss was an American, and he followed the trial closely. Towards the end, knowing that I had lived in the States for a while, he asked me whether I thought O.J. would be convicted. I told him no. By and large, I said, rich men don't get convicted of anything. That was true then, but less so now (Enron et cetera). I quoted examples; which I am far too cautious to repeat here. But my boss was quite sure that there would be guilty verdict. It's so obvious, he said.

Unfortunately I didn't have the sense to wager a substantial sum on the outcome. For charity, as I say.


Time is running out and I am going to Ireland this weekend (hence no post tomorrow), so let's see what we can pass on quickly.

Google isn't the only outfit that wants to digitise the content of all the world's books. (Link from

Pastor Ted Haggard (why do I keep wanting to call him Father Ted?) has brought oodles of traffic to the site of one dedicated Christian who had deep suspicions about him years ago. There must be a book in this somewhere. To get the true flavour of Ted, you probably also ought to see Jesus Camp; thanks to Reese for the link. And if you really want to have a disturbed night, watch Pastor Ted in action just before you go to sleep.

Nicolette Jones, already well known in the book world, has won the 2006 Mountbatten Maritime book prize for her non-fiction book about Samuel Plimsoll, The Plimsoll Sensation.

I'm sure you're not short of things to read, but while I think of it there's another free ebook of mine (besides Avebury, that is). It's called Tales from the Retirement Home, and contains two short stories.

Speaking of Avebury, Steve Clackson, of Sand Storm fame, tells me that Google Earth has some stunning pictures of the prehistoric site as seen from the sky.

On Buzz, Balls & Hype, M.J. Rose quotes an experienced publisher on the nature of the business: 'We are engaged,' he says, 'in a quixotic act of legalized gambling.' He couldn't possibly have been reading that other free ebook, could he? No, no, obviously not.

Tom Bower's book about Conrad Black looks interesting (excerpted in the Sunday Times).

An interview with Clive James, also in the Sunday Times, proved more enlightening than most; but then, of course, I noticed that it was written by Bryan Appleyard. Should have known.

Peter Hall and David Hare say some surprising things about British theatre, e.g. that taxpayer-subsidised theatre has been a disaster. (I agree, of course.)

If you're a writer you might, perhaps, want to join Kimberly Dawn Wells's Write Kind of Life group on Squidoo. You have to register to get into a Squidoo group, which I think is off-putting, but maybe that's just me.

Bits of News is precisely what it says: various bits of news with associated comment: political, economic, scientific, technological, cultural. The organisers describe it as 'a sort of hybrid mongrel between the multi-user blogs, such as Daily Kos, and the traditional (though the tradition never amounted to much really) internet magazine, like Salon.'

Lynne Scanlon thinks that book editors should never be allowed to write jacket copy, and gives examples. I hated all of them. I usually ignore jacket copy until I've read the book -- or tried to.

If you believe in the new, er, paradigm, and think that words are enhanced by music, try the Chicago Public Radio's The American Life -- Stories of Hope and Fear.

If you're planning a UK-based police procedural or crime novel, you need to be reading police blogs. Commenter Jimmy provided a link to the blog of PC Bloggs, who describes her day with Mrs Dora Biddles. Meanwhile, in the Police Review, columnist Inspector Simon Hepworth says: 'I wonder if it is right for serving police officers to publish their blogs under a cloak of anonymity.' Indeed. We wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea about police work, now would we?

Ali Karim enjoyed the Stephen King show a great deal more than Madame Arcati did.

The Bat Segundo show interviewed Richard Dawkins (#78).

Speaking of Richard (we were at school together, you know; I keep telling people that, but not many are impressed), Publishing News reports that Tesco are going to include The God Delusion in their Christmas promotion. You have to laugh, don't you? Unless you're the Archbishop of Canterbury, I suppose.

If you like to listen to authors being interviewed, Danuta Kean has some Channel 4 Radio podcasts for you. Possibly adult in nature. It says. Ooer. Apparently Stuart McLean gets very personal indeed. Getting the podcasts to work is 'as easy as pi,' says Danuta, 'and twice as interesting (especially for anyone who wants to get published).'

I used to be very interested in the US mafia and all that. In 1958, at three o'clock in the morning, I walked past a car with a bullet hole in the window and a dead man inside. Well, all right, he was just sleeping, but you get the idea. I'm not interested in the Mafia now, on account of having grown old, but you may be, and if you are you should take a look at The Brotherhoods -- the true story of two cops who murdered for the Mafia.

Tim Curry reads Peter Pan. Good Grief. I wonder if he was wearing those fishnet stockings at the time. You can hear a clip too. Peter Pan is even weirder when read aloud than it is when you read the damn thing on paper.

Five Chapters is a web site which publishes a story a week, with one instalment each day. The site is not, in my opinion, easy to navigate, and the text size is too small and too faint. Apart from that, it seems to be quite a good idea.

Phil Ribaudo has written a novel called The Road Letters, and has published it through yet another self-publishing outfit called Aventine Press. I have no idea whether this book is good, bad, or indifferent, but Phil is doing all the right things. He has a web site, a very professional book trailer, sample chapters, recipes, and all like that. Good luck, kid.


Finally, a word about those dreadful copyright pirates who put snatches of stuff on YouTube -- stuff that rightfully belongs to big companies, and has been used WITHOUT permission.

Take a look at what happened to YouTube usage in the days after Google bought it. The graph went flat. (Not at all sure that Alexa link will work, by the way, but take my word for it.) In other words, the kids have got the message. Google, the new 'responsible and ethical' owners of YouTube, are going to take all the fun out of it. If Google is going to delete, or try to charge for, all those bits of TV shows and so forth that the hardcore fans have posted there, then the kids are just going to fuck off and go somewhere else.

Google, the Times says, has held back $206 million (£109 million) of the $1.65 billion it spent to buy YouTube as legal security should any copyright actions be brought against the leading video-sharing website.

When will the braindead suits who run the big media companies learn any sense? No time soon, is my guess. The kids who get mad keen on a TV programme, or a film, and clip a bit of it to show to people on the web, and say Wow! isn't this great?, they're the best publicists in the world. And they work for nothing. It really isn't smart to treat them like thieves, and to try to charge them for doing your p.r. work for you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Miss Moneypenny unmasked

Few books have ever generated as much money as the series of thrillers written by Ian Fleming, from the 1950s onwards, featuring the British secret agent, James Bond. Today's Times suggests that, taking all sources into account, the Bond franchise has so far generated about $10 billion; that's billion with a b, and it is serious, serious money.

Not surprisingly, the literary estate of the late Ian Fleming is handled with due care and attention. Decisions are made by a company known as Ian Fleming Publications (IFP). The company's web site is currently under maintenance (it says) but it is normally found here.

One of the minor characters in the Bond books was Miss Moneypenny. She was, you may recall, the secretary to James Bond's boss, who went by the code-name M. And, as we noted here last July, Miss Moneypenny is currently in the process of publishing her diaries.

Sort of.

If you look back at my two earlier references to Miss Moneypenny's diaries, on 8 July and 29 August 2005, you will find that the publication of the first volume of a proposed trilogy of diaries was surrounded by mystery and confusion.

In summary, what happened was this. In July 2005, rumours of a Miss Moneypenny book began to circulate, and James Bond fanatics naturally checked with IFP for details. IFP denied all knowledge. Details of any forthcoming book were hard to come by -- no entry on UK Amazon, for example.

Then, in August, the Sunday Times ran an article which stated that the publisher of the Moneypenny diary (John Murray) had, at least for a while, tried to pretend that the book was somehow 'real'. The named author, Kate Westbrook, was, they maintained, a distinguished historian, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and so on. All of this the Sunday Times writer, Arts Editor Richard Brooks, quickly showed to be nonsense.

More importantly -- much, much more importantly -- there was confusion last July over whether, in order to publish a 'diary' by a character in the Bond books, the publisher and author needed, and had obtained, the permission of IFP, controllers of the Fleming estate.

The quotes from IFP in July, and in the August article in the ST, certainly left me with the impression that, initially at any rate, no such permission had been sought or given. 'In normal circumstances,' IFP's managing director was quoted as saying (August), 'we would have stopped this book. However, after detailed negotiations with John Murray we have reached an agreement.'

Which quote, I am sorry to say, I take to mean something like this: 'These slippery buggers at Murray thought they could get away with not giving us a cut, but now that we've hammered their heads against the wall several times, hard, they have seen sense.'

Why would IFP's boss say that 'in normal circumstances we would have stopped this book', if the project had been cleared with IFP from the very beginning, and there was every prospect of earning some income from it? IFP has, after all, commissioned several new Bond novels, written long after Fleming's death.

Volume one of the Moneypenny diaries duly appeared in October 2005, and, if the world subsequently wobbled on its axis, I am bound to say that I failed to notice.

Volume two of the diaries has just been published, nicely timed to fit in with the filmic debut of Daniel Craig as the new Bond. And, as part of the book's publicity drive, the author has written an extensive article about Miss Moneypenny; this article appeared in last Saturday's Times magazine.

The first thing we notice about this article is that the use of the pen-name Kate Westbrook has been all but abandoned. The article's heading tells us firmly that 'Samantha Weinberg celebrates the loyal and long-suffering secretary who helped put the ooh into 007.' And at the end of the article we are reminded that Secret Servant (volume two of the Moneypenny diaries) was 'written under the pseudonym of Kate Westbrook.'

What is more, we get a big picture of Samantha Weinberg 'doing her best Miss Moneypenny' impression. (The piccie is a good deal smaller on page 2 of the online version.)

Who is Samantha Weinberg? Well, it turns out that she's a pretty distinguished journalist and non-fiction writer, with a substantial track record. She also lives in Wiltshire, which shows remarkably good taste. But her agent's biography of her makes no mention of the Kate Westbrook alter ego.

What really caught my eye in last Saturday's Times article, and made me gulp a bit, was the first couple of paragraphs.

A little under three years ago, my agent, Gillon Aitken, made a chance remark over lunch. “What do you think of the idea of a Moneypenny book?” he asked. “It’s brilliant,” I said without a second thought. “I’d kill to write something like that.”

As it happens, I didn’t have to. Gillon introduced me to Ian Fleming’s literary arbiters, I wrote an outline for a series of “Moneypenny Diaries”, which they seemed to like, and in a few short months had plunged myself into the world of James Bond, SMERSH and Miss Moneypenny.

In other words, the story now is that IFP were involved, and gave permission for the Moneypenny diaries, from the very beginning. And there is no mention whatever of the publisher trying to persuade IFP (as reported in the Sunday Times last August) that the book was based on the diaries of a real MI6 secretary.

Corrine Turner, IFP's managing director, was quoted last August as follows: 'If this is fiction then it is very hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction. It’s very well put together. We were certainly led to believe by the publishers that there was a real Miss Moneypenny.' By the publishers, note. Not by Gillon Aitken, Samantha Weinberg's agent, or by Samantha herself.

There was no mention last August of Samantha Weinberg being introduced to IFP by Gillon Aitken, or to IFP being shown 'an outline for a series of "Moneypenny Diaries", which they seemed to like.'

All of which I find rather confusing.

That being said, the Moneypenny article in last Saturday's Times was tolerably interesting, as these things go. And whoever it was who persuaded the Times magazine to publish a blatant four-page plug for a new book, I take my hat off to them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Freedom of speech and the BNP

Freedom of speech is an issue which has been touched upon in this blog from time to time. For example, we have considered, you and I, Kembrew McLeod's book Freedom of Expression, and we have looked, more than once, at the wonders of the English law of libel. We noted that the most famous English libel lawyer, Peter Carter-Ruck, was described at his death as a man 'who did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.'

And so on. But connoisseurs of this issue, particularly those outside the UK, may like to take note of a circumstance which has arisen in England during the last week.

There exists in the UK a small political party known as the British National Party (BNP). The party has a mission statement which you can read for yourself, but I don't think the members would complain too loudly if you described them as a white supremacist group. They might, perhaps, demur a bit if you described them as fascist, though plenty of their critics wouldn't hesitate to use that description. You could also describe them, in shorthand terms, as anti-immigration. Indeed the party leader seems to have made no secret of his view that all immigrants should be shipped back home -- wherever home is.

The party is headed by a Cambridge law graduate called Nick Griffin, and for several years now he has been going around making speeches -- as politicians do. Quite often, it seems, these speeches are made in front of audiences which deliberately do not include members of the press or other media.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this exclusion policy aroused suspicion as to what was being said, and in 2004 the BBC smuggled in a camera and sound system to make a secret film of Griffin in action. Parts of the speech so recorded were then shown on TV.

In his speech, Griffin can be heard pointing out that, if the police got to know what he was saying to his supporters, he could get seven years in prison. So much, he implied, for the principle of free speech. He also described Islam as a 'wicked, vicious faith', and said that Muslims were turning Britain into a 'multi-racial hell hole'.

Sure enough, when this matter was drawn to the attention of Inspector Knacker of the Yard, and other authorities, Griffin was in due course prosecuted for using words likely to incite racial hatred.

At the first trial the jury failed to agree. But instead of then dropping the case, the authorities forced a retrial. However, on 10 November a jury in Leeds unanimously brought in a not guilty verdict on both Griffin and a colleague who faced similar charges. This verdict was promptly hailed by the BNP as a victory for free speech.

There were numerous reactions to this series of events. The most important, however, came from the man who is thought by some to be our next Prime Minister -- if ever, that is, our beloved Mr Blair should (God forbid) step down. Our next Prime Minister promptly declared that, since Mr Griffin had been acquitted, it was obviously necessary to tighten up the laws about what could and could not be said on racial matters.

But wait. By a curious coincidence (if you believe in coincidences), on precisely the same day as Mr Griffin was cracking open the champagne (kindly donated, the BNP tells us, by a French right-wing party), a speech was being made by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5.

Aside for overseas readers. MI5 (once department 5 of the Ministry of Information) is the body responsible for anti-espionage (and nowadays anti-terror) work in the UK. MI6 (the outfit that James Bond worked for) is reponsible for gathering intelligence from overseas. John Le Carre worked for both at various times.

Dame Eliza was speaking, as Mr Griffin had been, to a 'specially invited audience', and not to the general public. However, her remarks were issued to the press and were posted on the MI5 web site.

Young British Muslims, said Dame Eliza, were being groomed to become suicide bombers and her agents were tracking some 1,600 suspects, most of whom were British-born and linked to al Qaeda in Pakistan. 'We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and damage our economy. What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten? No, nearer 30 ... That we know of.'

Here is another direct quotation from her speech: 'The extremists are motivated by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation of the history between the West and the Muslim world. This view is shared, in some degree, by a far wider constituency. If the opinion polls conducted in the UK since July 2005 are only broadly accurate, over 100,000 of our citizens consider that the July 2005 attacks in London were justified.'

The response to this speech from Mr Blair, our glorious leader whom Allah preserve, was: 'I think she is absolutely right in saying that it will last a generation.... This terror threat is very real,' he added.

So. Mr Griffin describes Islam as wicked and vicious, and gets prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. The head of MI5 says that the range of factors that are motivating acts of terrorism include perceived injustices against Muslims around the world and extreme interpretations of Islam, and Mr Blair pats her on the back.

The fact that there is a a bit of a left hand/right hand problem here has not, you will be pleased to hear, gone completely unnoticed. For comment, you could try, for example, Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, or Libby Purves in today's Times, or just read the letters in today's Times.

And if you're really, really keen, when you've absorbed all that, and are in training to face an audience or become a Church of England vicar or something, then you might like to limber up by preparing answers to a few questions of the sort that used to appear in examination papers set by the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge. (What the present practice is in those universities I know not; but, at a guess, candidates probably don't have to write essays any longer; just tick boxes. Such is progress.)

Anyway, as I say, here are a few questions of the kind that arts graduates of my generation used to have to answer: usually at the rate of four in a three-hour paper.

1. 'The English were driven insane by the second world war.' Discuss in relation to the immigration policies of successive British governments since 1945.

2. Enoch Powell was right. Discuss.

3. Compare and contrast the political philosophies of Mr Blair and Mr Griffin.

4. Immigration is one thing; occupation is another; and occupation by racial groups which are plotting the destruction of their host communities is yet a third. Discuss in relation to the present position in some British cities.