Friday, December 22, 2006

Weekend roundup

Here, before we close down for the weekend, or longer, are a few bits and pieces which have crossed my desk:

If you are a playwright, you might like to look at Plays 4U, which offers a marketplace.

Nancy Pearl's Book Lust is 'a community for book lovers', with lists of 'best' books, possibles for reading groups, and so forth.

Shelfari is a similar place, where you can post details of what you've read, and find out what other people enjoyed.

Murder Ink, the famous New York crime-fiction bookshop, is closing after all these years; founded 1972. (Link from Publishers Lunch.) It was opened by Dilys Winn, who edited two important anthologies about the crime-fiction genre: Murder Ink, and Murderess Ink. Both are available secondhand at dirt-cheap prices and are warmly recommended.

Akashic Books is a small New York publisher, dedicated to 'the reverse-gentrification of the literary world.' You might like to check out Userlands: new fiction from the blogging underground. An associated site is the Hotel St. George, where you may be able to book a room -- for your story. Interesting concept, and a place worth watching, one feels.

C.S. Harris, who also writes as Candice Proctor, has posted a provocative discussion about plotting fiction: planners versus pantsers (as in seat of). I'm a planner myself. There is much else on the Harris blog which repays study. (Thanks to Chap O'Keefe for the link.)

Blogflux is a service for bloggers and blog readers. Its aims are ambitious.

The Judith Regan saga continues, and is beginning to get very boring. If you wish to keep up with every titbit of gossip, the place to go is Galleycat. Go back to the post entitled 'Judith Regan's Coldest. Firing. Ever.' on Monday 18 December, and move forward to the present from there. There must be a dozen detailed posts; 18 by now, I shouldn't wonder.

Sara Nelson's latest Publishers Weekly editorial draws attention to the enormous success of Paul Coelho. I'm not sure whether this is inspirational, in every sense, or deeply worrying.

Duncan Fallowell has a column called High Culture in the Arts section of The First Post. How come I didn't know about this before? I suppose one can't read everything. Though Gods know, one tries.

Alana Post writes about how difficult it is to get a job these days when your application is read by a piece of software. Piece of something, anyway. The firm concerned is McGraw Hill, and the story should be a warning to anyone still in the jobs market. Reminds me of years ago, when applications (in England) were sorted by 16-year-olds just out of school. Man with PhD applies and doesn't (naturally) bother to list his O and A levels (= high-school graduation). Teenage sorter notes that applicant doesn't have any O levels, so in the bin it goes.

Alana Post's site also highlights, for some unknown reason, an amazing book called The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. Now that one I really do have to read.

Do you believe in magic? Real magic, I mean, not the Harry P. rubbish. If the answer's yes, Galleycat has a book for you.

And, er, that's it for now. I'm going to take a week's break. Back here, all being well, on Monday 1 January.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The literature of transthingummy -- part 1


Events conspire. Have you noticed that? In this case there was Grayson Perry -- twice. Then there was the April Ashley thing. And finding out that Paul O'Grady is shortly to become a grandfather. And of course it's Christmas; or whatever you care to call it. All of these, and probably several other factors that I can't remember at the moment, conspired to remind me that for months I have been intending to write about the literature of transthingummy.

I say transthingummy because there are various bits that go after trans. There's transvestism, and transsexuality, and nowadays you also get transgender, which is, I think, the more academic and PC term. In the US theatrical context, we also have something known as genderfuck.

All of these things have to do with men wearing women's clothes, women dressing as men, and men and women actually trying to change sex, or gender if you must, through surgical procedures. And this is not, I will admit, everyone's cup of tea, but there is an aful lot of it about, particularly in England (it seems to me), and particularly at this time of year, because it's the panto season; of which more in a moment.

The whole trans thing is also, I will also admit, a phenomenon that I have been interested in for decades. No, dear, I don't borrow anything of Mrs GOB's. Never had the slightest urge. Though I once appeared as a woman in a schoolboy play. But I have, at various times, come across people with some strange habits and ambitions, and I have written about them occasionally, though usually in a fictional context.

So, what we have in this post today is a quick canter through some aspects of the transthingummy phenomenon, beginning, because of the time of year, with reference to theatrical events in England. There will, however, be occasional references to the US scene.

This survey will, I regret to say, be distinctly lacking in academic rigour. This is not a paper to be delivered at next spring's conference in Vienna on Postmodern Role Confusion in the Modern Theatre. It is just a few thoughts, straight off the top of my head, with the titles of a few interesting books and links to web sites, should you be short of something to read.


I will leave it to historians and social scientists to work out why, but it seems to me that, for several hundred years, the English have had a very peculiar approach to the representation of the sexes on stage; and, nowadays, in the other media.

This stems, I guess, from at least Elizabethan times. You may recall that, in the original productions of Shakespeare's plays, all the female parts, including Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, were played by men; or, perhaps more accurately, by boys.

The Elizabethan situation led to gender interchange as a plot device (Twelfth Night) and in modern times there was a reverse variation, so to speak, when Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet.

Rolling on, into the nineteenth century, we find that the music hall had a strong line in women who dressed as men. Of these, Vesta Tilley was possibly the most famous; but she was not altogether respectable, and it is said that, when Vesta appeared on stage at an early Royal Variety Show (in aid of charity), Queen Mary buried her head in the programme.

Examples of modern women performing as men are, it seems to me, less common, but in the US Murray Hill is a famous name, at least in some quarters. And one other performer making a name for herself in this 'drag king' area is Nicole LaGreca.

Drag queens, one commentator observes, are now family entertainment; drag kings, on the other hand, are still edgy and threatening; and, having read Nicole LaGreca's description of what happens when she plays an altar boy, I can understand why. (If you really want to know, a priest comes out and 'sucks her dick'.)

In the twentieth century, a number of variety performers made a very handsome living by playing female parts. There was, famously, Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan), and Norman Evans. You can find Norman's famous Over the Garden Wall routine on the web these days, and I almost know it off by heart. Audiences did too, because he'd toured it for years. But everything, of course, depended on the timing and the characterisation. On paper it probably doesn't look very funny. And it's all very northern working class, too. Not everyone's thing.

It is in the English pantomime that we find the most elaborate and glamorous interchange of sexual roles. The pantomime, I may need to explain for those in the US, is a theatrical performance, put on for perhaps six weeks from just before Christmas, which is built around a traditional folk tale or nursery rhyme. See Wikipedia for a pretty good introductory article.

The pantomime is, above all else, an entertainment for the whole family, particularly for the children, which makes the gender interchange all the more odd.

The heroine, you see (let's say Cinderella), is always played by an attractive young woman. But her significant other, in this case Prince Charming, is always played by an equally glamorous, but perhaps slightly older, young woman. Our hero, known as the Principal Boy (despite being a girl) normally dresses in a short masculine tunic, fancy hat, and fishnet tights which show off her legs to great advantage.

I pause here while I distractedly remember some of the Principal Boys whom I have seen, and fancied something rotten, in the past. Time was, you see, when we didn't favour the anorexic look, and principal boys had thighs that could crack a man's skull. Lynda Baron (if memory serves) was the best. Ronnie Barker, a man with considerable good taste in these matters, must have thought so too, because she ended up playing Nurse Gladys Emmanuel. The mere memory develops beads of sweat on one's brow.

Next, we have the Dame. The Dame is an older woman, well past her prime but still game for anything, and she is invariably played by a man. Mutton dressed as lamb, with lots of costume changes, which can be exhausting, one gathers.

Famous dame characters include Mother Goose and Widow Twankey. Famous actors who have done dames include Douglas Byng, Berwick Kaler, and, more recently, Sir Ian McKellen.

In Edinburgh last year, I saw (and reviewed here) a play (Twinkle Little Star) about a pantomime dame. Finding himself demoted in the panto in order to give more time on stage to some talentless Australian soap star, the dame arranged for said soap star to come to a grisly end when turning on the Christmas lights in the city where the panto was to take place. It's a good play; see it if you can.

In some pantos, other parts are also played by actors of the 'wrong' sex. Thus in Cinderella, the ugly sisters might be played by a couple of blokes in drag: e.g. Alan Haynes and Danny La Rue, Barry Howard and John Inman.

Mention of drag brings us round once again to the drag queen aspect of transthingummy. Drag queens, outside of pantomime, are by no means an English phenomenon, but we do seem to have quite a plethora of them, and they contrive to be popular despite being in what might, in an earlier age, have been described as poor taste.

Possibly the most successful drag artist in the UK was Danny la Rue. His 1974 book Life's a Drag! is still around secondhand. More recently, Paul O'Grady hosted TV shows in his Lily Savage persona ('We were poor, but we were shoplifters'; and, 'Why buy a book when you can join the library?'); though nowadays he is his usual self for his extremely successful afternoon chat show (he alternates with Richard and Judy).

That will do for now. Yes, I realise that we haven't mentioned Foo Foo Lamar, and many others. Neither have we, you will observe, touched upon non-theatrical transvestism, still less the difficult and painful surgical procedures involved in so-called sex changes. Those matters must await our attention, if you can bear it, on another day.

Further reading:

Roger Baker: Drag: a history of female impersonation on the stage. Macdonald, 1968
Peter Ackroyd: Dressing up -- transvestism and drag, the history of an obsession. Thames & Hudson, 1979

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The sleb effect

If you have been paying attention, much of what follows may be well known to you. But bear with me. Something which might be mistaken, on a dark night, for original thought, may appear at the end.

Somewhere in one of yesterday's papers (and I cannot now find it, of course, when I want it), there was the result of some research carried out with British children into what aspects of life they thought important. It turns out that what modern British kids think is most important -- more vital than being healthy, for example -- is being a celebrity.

Who can blame them? Poor little devils, they grow up surrounded by convincing evidence that being famous is indeed the most gracious state to which they can aspire. The available evidence suggests to their impressionable little minds that celebrity will bring with it everything that could conceivably be of value: friends, money, security, popularity, leisure, travel; and all like that.

Furthermore, it is abundantly obvious to the little ones that, in order to achieve celebrity you don't actually have to do anything. It is sufficient to be. Witness the Jades, Jordans, and countless others who have become a blur in my mind.

So commonplace a topic of playground discussion has the celebrity phenomenon become that the term celebrity itself is now subject to abbreviation. Celebrity is no longer quite a four-syllable word: the kreck pronunciation now is sleb.

The publishing industry sometimes seems to hold the same view as the kids: i.e. that slebs are the most important people on the face of the planet. Certainly there has been, in the last decade particularly, a constant stream of sleb biographies: or, much more commonly, autobiographies, nearly all of them ghosted.

Some of these sleb books have proved massively successful. For example, Peter Kay, a man whom I have barely heard of but who evidently has a huge following, is currently selling 80,000 copies a week.

The result of this situation is that the half-dozen or so big-time trade publishers in the UK have for some time been involved in a bidding war. An agent who represents a sleb has only to lift the phone, it seems, and bids of a million or so will follow.

Last week, Tim Hely Hutchinson, head of Hachette UK (i.e. Hodder Headline, Orion et cetera), declared, with typical English understatement, that UK publishers may have paid too much for some celebrity biographies. And in Prospect, as mentioned here last Thursday, Trevor Dolby made the same point.

What we've been short of, until this week, was some data revealing just how appalling some of these over-payments have been. Always assuming, of course, that the reported figures for advances paid are something like the truth. Of which more in a moment.

This week, happily, Private Eye has provided some sales figures to illuminate the discussion. Set out below are some classic examples of business-decision failures; the name of the celebrity is followed by the reported size of the advance, and the total sales so far (which in many cases will be the total sales ever). Bear in mind that, according to Dolby, sales of 333,000 of a £20 book are needed to recoup the advance:

David Blunkett -- £400,000 -- 2,000
Gary Barlow -- £1,000,000 -- 50,000
Johnson Beharry -- £1,000,000 -- 18,000
Rupert Everett -- £1,000,000 -- 20,000
Ashley Cole -- £250,000 -- 4,000
Michael Barrymore -- £300,000 -- 5,000
Chantelle -- £400,000 -- under 5,000
Shayne Ward -- £200,000 -- under 5,000

Is it possible, one asks oneself, that UK publishers could have been quite so stupid? Well yes, it is. Long years of observation leave us with no option but to conclude that.

True, a new novel by this year's Great Hope (not all of them White these days) will typically be publicised as having been paid a 'six-figure advance'. But I would be willing to bet quite a chunk of my pension that, in most cases, said contract is actually for two books, at least, with staged payments, some of which will be geared to the performance of the first book in the marketplace. So the massive sum (if you think of £100,000 as massive) is not quite so massive after all.

But in the case of sleb books, I have a nasty feeling that the £1 million probably means £1 million.

In other words, UK publishers are bleeding money. Again.

So what, we may reasonably ask, is the sleb effect?

I suggest that this trend has two principal effects on a mainstream trade publisher: lost of prestige, and loss of interest.

There was a time when publishing was perceived as a prestigious activity. It was, as the title of Frederick Warburg's autobiography made clear, An Occupation for a Gentleman. It was also a business in which the daughters of genteel parents could safely be allowed to spend their time until, inevitably, they got married in St George's, Hanover Square.

But now? Now publishing companies are revealed as publishers of trash, to use a polite word. A young lady, acting as receptionist to Snipcock and Tweed, may find herself mixing with the likes of Jordan, Jade, and Chantelle; not to mention some thoroughly undesirable socially, though undeniably desirable sexually, young men. And think where that could lead.

The lip-curling will not end with mummy and daddy. It will spread throughout the media and the financial world.

Ah yes. Finance. And there's the real problem.

Publishing you see, as implicitly recognised in its reputation as a suitable profession for a gentleman, has never made any money. The evidence is overwhelming. I defy you to read, for instance, Eric de Bellaigue's British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, and come to any other conclusion. 'Trade publishing,' he tells us, 'is by no means a sure route to financial success.' For the sophisticated investor, it is something that he might take a bet on, much as he might buy a share in a race horse.

There was a time, centred around the 1980s, when a number of big international companies somehow conceived that publishing could be made to generate serious money if the publishers were absorbed into conglomerates which contained television, film, real estate in the form of theatres, cinemas, and so forth. Synergy would result -- that was the theory.

Time, for example, bought the small English publisher Andre Deutsch. Privately, both Deutsch and his right-hand woman, Diana Athill, considered that this purchase was remarkably silly; and so it proved.

A sense of reality soon dawned on the big companies which had absorbed the smaller fish. And now, miserabile dictu, there is talk that the big companies might actually dump their publishing arms. Success in publishing, when it occurs, is demonstrably more due to the roll of the dice than anything else, and perhaps that's not the best way to run a business.

Time Warner, for instance, decided to sell its book division earlier this year to French media company Lagardere. And there is speculation that other media giants might decide to follow Time Warner's example.

CBS might sell Simon & Schuster; NewsCorp might dump HarperCollins (it has been a bit of a nuisance lately). 'Both companies,' says one analyst, 'would be fine without books, and getting rid of those divisions could give a boost to their growth rates.'

There are, apparently, private equity firms which might be willing to buy these publishing firms, and then try to achieve what so many others have already tried, and failed. The argument, apparently, is that publishers generate 'steady streams of cash'. That's not my impression, or Galleycat's either, but then a lot of private equity companies seem to think that they are much cleverer than the rest of us.

Let's hope that such companies do come forward to buy up the failures. And that they can indeed turn things around. Otherwise trade publishing is going to be in even bigger trouble than it is already.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Even gloomier Tuesday

While waiting for a reminder that the sun exists...

A good reason for not starting to go to the movies again

Many years ago there was an unsuccessful writer who couldn't get published. Got depressed instead, and killed himself. Thereafter, Mom, a true believer, showed his book around, eventually got it published by an obscure press, and Madame Fortuna blessed it with a Pulitzer Prize.

The writer was John Kennedy Toole, the book A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), and the serious lit crits described it as one of the funniest books of all time. It isn't. Never got so much as a smile out of it. Now they're going to make a movie of it. Or perhaps they won't. Opinions differ. Either way, I am not bovvered.

But it's a story beloved of romantically fuzzy-minded authors everywhere. Just because I have 45 rejection slips doesn't mean I'm not a genius really. And after I've killed myself and my book becomes a huge success, then you'll be sorry.

Miss Snark is at it again

It just makes me so tired to contemplate it, but literary agent Miss Snark is simply bursting with energy. OK, so she has to make a living, and she hopes to find that next J.K. Rowling or whoever, but she is clearly not afraid of hard work.

Admittedly, she does occasionally tell her readers that they don't know whether to wind their butt or scratch their watch, which is not awfully kind to those of us who, through the handicap of age, deafness, and various other afflictions, are perhaps the tiniest bit slow on the uptake and fail to read the small print -- but, nevertheless, she does offer golden opportunities, at vast cost to her time and, no doubt, emotional wear and tear, to the great unwashed and unpublished.

Her latest scheme is to offer 160 or so writers the opportunity to send in a 250-word outline, or hook, for a book, in the hope of grabbing her attention.

The 150 entries began to be posted by Miss Snark, with comments, at 8.05 p.m. on 15 December, and no 2 appeared 3 minutes later. Thumpy eck, you've got three minutes! Less, actually, because she has to post the thing on her blog, read it, and write a comment.

This is a cut-throat business, Vera, and wise persons do flower-arranging instead.

Marti Lawrence, at hook no 27, was the first to raise anything but a curled lip.

Unorthodox layout

Speaking of Marti Lawrence, the lady points me to a book with a slightly unorthodox layout. Thanks, Marti, but I think that books with only 180 words to a page, with half the words upside down, and type which steadily shrinks in size, are just so last year.

Masonic gifts

Got any freemasons in the family? If so, lots of cheapo book gifts at Lewis Masonic. But you may have to search a bit for the really good cut-price offers. (No, I'm not. Never could get the hang of the handshake.)

ArtistShare for writers?

Devra Hall describes how ArtistShare works for musicians, and wonders whether it can do the same for writers.

Rape, the N-word and sex... the title of a press release publicising a novel by black author Joseph E. Green. He originally thought of using the title Invisible Niggers, because, he says, he 'wanted to capture people's attention and promote discussion regarding several politically sensitive issues.' After some further thought, the book was eventually labelled Merging with Monsters and was published through iUniverse. The novel opens with a seven-page rape scene which has upset some people, so be warned.

Merging with Monsters is in fact Joseph Green's third novel, the first having been published while he was still an undergraduate at Stanford. He also has a page on MySpace, where he seems to have accumulated quite a few readers and friends. But the most useful info is on

Mentioned in despatches

Duncan Fallowell, of April Ashley fame, has an 'unofficial' web site, with details of life and books, both interesting.

Myrmidon Books is a newish UK publishing enterprise, publishing mainstream and literary adult fiction. Open to submissions sans agent. Latest output: Gift of Rain, about life in Malaya under Japanese occupation, and Painted Messiah, a thriller about tracking down a portrait of Christ, painted from life.

Galleycat reports that some established writers are finding it preferable to go with smaller publishers. Little or no advance, but better attention and maybe more money at the end. Among those going with Vantage Books are David Morrell and Eileen Goudge. The latter once pulled down an advance of nearly $1 million. (See Al Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel for details of how he sold it.)

Best is last

Cantara Christopher is an independent New York based publisher who sends out periodic emails, naturally enough, to publicise her company's latest doings. Here is an extract from her latest, which is highly relevant to anyone interested in what Cantara calls The New Paradigm. I omit her flattering reference to the GOB, because you're here already.


This is the most important thing I learned this year: If you're on this level of small, small press publishing, you can't just sell the book, you have to sell the technology that enabled the book to be published and you have to sell the philosophy of The New Publishing Paradigm as a whole.

(What's The New Paradigm? Read the article at

This is one big package to sell, and I have to tell you sometimes it looks mighty daunting. The trick is to find other people with the same vision, work with them and ride The Long Tail together. Here are a few:

-Baltimore-based online retailer Brad Grochowski (read what he has to say about Amazon at; also what I have to to say on the same subject at; also read our mention in The Urbanite Baltimore at

-Boulder area-based publisher/author Sandra Sanchez of The Wessex Collective (

- NYC/LA-based publisher/author Jay Brida of Contemporary Press (

- NYC-based novelist/commentator Carol Hoenig (read what she had to say about us at whose ear to the ground and unerring instinct can be found daily at

- DC-based novelist/reviewer, the anonymous "POD-dy Mouth" (, a woman of exquisite taste, high standards and top-tier contacts, who reviews ONLY self-published novels

- Tennessee-based bookcafe owners Karen Walasek and Ron Heacock (, whose dream to establish a writers community in their town of Pulaski extends to the offer of free room and board at their country retreat to needy authors

And to acknowledge a couple of people I have or had only a brushing acquaintance with, but recognize their participation in The New Paradigm:

- Vermont-based story writer and poet Grace Paley, whose Glad Day Books ( provided one of the models for our own small press

- Denver-based Dave Cullen ( whose unprecedented boosting of Annie Proulx's story-cum-film, Brokeback Mountain, in the middle states broadened the audience for strong, character-based fiction

- New York-based writer Tim Brown (http//, a walking encyclopedia of the pioneering DIY days

Cantara adds:

The key to working and writing in The New Paradigm? Live simply. Stay focused... And stop writing for the market. Nowadays the market is what you make it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wet Monday

Rude Regan?

The Book Standard (and everybody else) reported on Friday that Judith Regan had been fired by HarperCollins. Regan, you will recall, was the publishing person most heavily involved in the O.J. book, and the one with the most to lose when it went wrong.

Galleycat adds the news that the last straw for HC was an 'offensive' phone call to a HC lawyer who was trying to sort out some difficulties with another book, one about Mickey Mantle (a baseball player, one gathers, of some note).

Well, there's gratitude for you. Here's a woman who has done so much to lift the profile of HC, and this is the thanks she gets. As for the offensive phone call story, I find that so out of character as to strain the credulity. Mind you, publishing lawyers would tax anybody's patience.

Galleycat summarises the speculation about what next for the magnificent Judith.

Here Kitty, Kitty

Another widely reported story is that Kitty Kelley has finally found a publisher who is prepared to publish her unauthorised biography of St Oprah of Tele.

Kitty Kelley is famous for producing such unauthorised bios, which are regarded as hatchet jobs, ripping apart the carefully crafted reputations of public figures, such as Frank Sinatra or the British Royal family, and leaving them in tatters. She's been sued, notably by Frank Sinatra, but never successfully.

There are two interesting aspects to the Kelley/Oprah story. The first is that most of the big US publishers were evidently very reluctant to publish the new book, several of them turning it down in no uncertain fashion.

Most publishers, apparently, did not want to be known as the firm which disillusioned vast numbers of American women about the heroine of the small silver screen. (The assumption being, of course, that Oprah will be left looking bad when Kitty has finished with her; which does not follow as night follows day, but that seems to be the assumption.)

In any event, Crown have now decided that the profit on the deal outweighs any opprobrium which might come their way.

But the really, really, really interesting thing about the Kitty/Oprah story is the one told by Publishers Lunch, which quotes 'multiple sources'. PL says that, at one point during the summer, when perhaps it looked as if no mainstream publisher would take the risk on this one, 'Kelley's reps were in discussions with iUniverse.'

Now if that doesn't give you a laugh, albeit a grim one, on this gloomy Monday morning, I can offer no better.

Of course it may be that PL's 'multiple sources' were having a little fun at Ms Kelley's expense. Nevertheless, if I were a mainstream, big-time publisher, and I read that PL report, I would quake in my boots. Here's why.

In 2003 I published a book called The Truth about Writing (which you can read free, as a PDF file). In that book I made reference to that great and perceptive work Book Business, by Jason Epstein, a man who combines decades of experience in traditional publishing with an unusual interest in modern technology and digital developments generally. Here's what I said:

Epstein points out that the large publishers and the major bookshop chains both depend heavily on selling the product of the brand-name authors. In fiction these are the John Grishams, the Danielle Steels, and the Tom Clancys.

However, as Epstein also points out, once a writer becomes a brand name, she no longer needs the big publisher at all! She could just as easily set up her own marketing and distribution system and go it alone. And probably make more money.

If the big-time writers are continuing to use the big publishers, and at the time of writing that is the case, then it can only be because such an arrangement suits their convenience; it is not because they are unaware of possible alternatives.

In other words, if Kitty Kelley has, in the end, done a deal with Crown, it is only because that is, for her, the most convenient way to arrange for the package of services that she needs, in order to put her book before the public. It is not because there isn't a viable alternative.

One day, and it won't be long now, a big brand-name person will not necessarily go to iUniverse, but she will simply set up her own company, buy in the help she needs on a freelance or one-off basis, and forget about HarperCollins and Random House.

Thus the thoughtful big-time publisher, whose pension depends up the huge profits from his brand-name authors, is currently more than a little worried. It may be that he will spend ten or twenty years building up a name, only to find that the ungrateful beast then ups and offs, precisely at the moment when the investment is about to pay off.

Arse and elbow syndrome

There was a bit of a fuss last week because the US Democrats' new intelligence chairman got a bit confused between the Sunnis and the Shias. Some nit-picking news commentators took the extraordinary view that such a highly placed man ought to know what he was talking about, which is an entirely new concept where politicians are concerned.

However, if there are any Americans who feel slightly embarrassed by the shortcomings of their leaders, I have some comforting news. I remember a highly placed member of the UK's MI6 who used to get confused between the East Indies and the West Indies. And I also remember a Cambridge historian who used to have trouble distinguishing between the Reformation and the Renaissance. (Both begin with Re, when all is said and done; and they were both an awfully long time ago.)

Unfortunately, my comfort is qualified. The UK examples quoted above are drawn from fictional sources. The historian appeared in Kingsley Amis's 1954 novel Lucky Jim, and the MI6 man was in Grahame Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). In the film, the latter gentleman was played (rather well, of course) by Noel Coward.

Honorable mentions

Terry Pratchett is interviewed in the Sunday Times, and the two-part TV adaptation of his Hogfather novel began on Sky last night. Not bad, I thought. Caitlin Moran doesn't agree with me, but I thought Marc Warren had a pretty good stab at Mr Teatime.

Bryan Appleyard does a good interview job on Michael Crichton, and elicits the info that Harvard Eng. Lit. profs can't tell the difference between an undergraduate essay and George Orwell. I fail to be surprised. Meanwhile the Independent explains why it's not a good idea to criticise Crichton: you could end up in his next book, being accused of lacking something in the manhood department (link from

The Sunday Times lists bestsellers in the Guides and Manuals class, and we learn that Paul McKenna (PhD) has three in the top ten: Instant Confidence; I can Make You Thin; and Change Your Life in Seven Days. And they've sold in serious numbers: in the case of Instant Confidence, 169,495 in one week.

Yippee! I'm Time magazine's person of the year. But, er, so are about 50 million other people.

To no one's surprise, particularly if they've read Kembrew McLeod, Disney claims to own Santa Claus. But this is, of course, a filthy, wicked lie. Santa belongs to Coca Cola, as any fule kno.

Issue 4 of Ward 6 Review is out. It offers the 'finest poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, regardless of form, style, school, or method. Quite simply, we will take the best work that crosses our desks. We intend to do everything within our power to turn Ward 6 Review into a premiere literary destination on the Internet.'

Jeffrey Harmon is part of a company which offers the opportunity to create a family memory book.

A UK star publisher tells how he picks winners. No dear, he doesn't do it with a pin. It just feels that way. (Link from

The Indie explains why writing a book isn't likely to pay the rent, and why you don't need to do it full-time anyway. (Link from

Galleycat reports that another smart fellow is giving his work away. My dears, all the best people are doing it.

Forbes magazine lists the top-earning authors; and they're not all novelists.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Steve Weber: The Home-Based Bookstore

About twenty years ago, I was a serious book collector. I had an interest in a particular subject (early books, published in England, on photography), and I undertook a substantial amount of research to find out what had been published in that field. I then did much further research to track down booksellers who specialised in photography, get hold of their printed catalogues, and so forth.

In the 1980s, all of this took a substantial amount of time and effort. It involved going to an exceptionally well equipped library, trawling through endless annual volumes of the British National Bibliography, and a lot more. I didn't mind the work; I found it quite fascinating; but it was certainly time-consuming.

Today, of course, everything has changed. The advent of the internet has transformed the used-book market. Today there is no need to find a large library, and heft around the weighty volumes of the BNB. You can do all your searches in one hundredth of the time, by using COPAC, or something similar.

Neither does the would-be book-buyer have to expend much time, shoe leather, and petrol on travelling from shop to shop and poking around in dusty corners. Online access to a site such as, or, removes the need for all that.

Around the time when I was doing all this searching, and occasional buying, I had a friend who was a librarian by profession; he was also, for a variety of reasons, very hard up. I had become aware, in the course of my researches, that there were a considerable number of part-time bookdealers, working on a mail-order basis, and I suggested to my friend that he should become one of them. He was ideally equipped for it in many ways.

My friend (now deceased, alas) never did take up my suggestion. But I remember looking round for a little how-to book which might encourage him. You know the kind of thing: How to Become a Spare-Time Bookdealer and Earn £50,000 a Year With No Effort At All. That sort of book.

I never did find that book, or anything quite like it. But, faced with the same problem today, I would certainly give my friend a copy of Steve Weber's The Home-Based Bookstore.

The sub-title gives us the gist of the thing: 'Start your own business selling used books on Amazon, eBay or your own web site'. Which is plain enough. And before you decide that this is of no interest to you, because you haven't the slightest intention of starting a part-time book business, let me say that anyone who buys books regularly could find something useful and interesting within these pages.

The back cover of the book tells us that Steve Weber started his own home-based bookstore as a hobby in 2001. He soon became full-time, and in five years has sold books worth more than $1 million. (Though turnover, we must remember, is not the same thing as profit.) The book simply tells us how he did it, and how you can proceed along the same lines, if you wish.

Weber begins with an explanation of the size and value of the online book market. Happily, he does not oversell the idea of becoming a dealer. 'Most booksellers,' he says, 'don't get rich, and quite a few go broke.... It's hard work.'

There then follow chapters on where to find books, and what books to buy. If you've ever tried to sell any old books recently, just to clear some shelf space, you will know that dealers are decidedly picky about what they will take and what they will not take. With good reason, we discover: some stuff sells, some doesn't.

As you've probably guessed, from the $1 million statement, Steve Weber is an American, and the whole book is slanted to the American experience, but the principles would hold good in any country.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it turns out that the Amazon Marketplace is the best place for a beginner to sell books. But there are many other online sites, all of which are listed and described.

The remainder of the book deals with grading and pricing books, the importance of providing a good service, and the complexities of the US postal system. The further you go in the book, the more it is aimed at the full-time professional, with discussions of stock-control systems, pricing and inventory software, and 'wireless pricing lookup', which as far as I can see means checking prices, via your mobile phone, while you're poking around in a church jumble sale, and wondering if you've found a gem.

For the would-be bookdealer, this book is invaluable. But even the casual book buyer will benefit from knowing, for instance, that compares prices from almost all the major book listing sites. (A quick search revealed, for instance, that there are at present 146 copies of my novel Spence at Marlby Manor on sale. Crumbs!)

Towards the end, Weber has a chapter on the future of bookselling. The next decade, he thinks, will be a bumpy ride for booksellers. Google, at present, is probably sending 90% of book buyers to Amazon. But if it begins directing searchers to its own Froogle, eBay, or somewhere else, that could put a huge dent in Amazon's business.

There are five appendices, giving guidance as to further sources of information, including a list of further reading and a glossary. There is an index.

The Home-Based Bookstore is published by Steve Weber himself, and he's made a first-class job of it. It's extremely well written and organised, and the credits include both an editor and a copy editor, neither of whom put a foot wrong, as far as I can see. The layout is excellent -- at a guess, 12 pt Georgia, with its associated sans-serif font, Verdana, for headings. Whether I'm right or not, the design makes for easy reading.

All in all this is a good buy for those contemplating the book trade: will sell you a copy for $19.95, but there are copies available for less.

Steve Weber's web site leads you to a blog on which he discusses issues relating to the used-book market. And there's a parallel blog which is aimed at self-publishers (or any other authors, for that matter) who want help in selling copies of their book. This blog is well worth a look too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thursday market

UK publishing data

Trevor Dolby, until recently the managing director and publisher of HarperEntertainment, has an article in this month's Prospect which sheds useful light on the UK trade publishing scene. (Link from

Dolby concentrates mainly on the celebrity (auto)biography phenomenon, which has been with us for decades but which he claims (with some justice) to have re-invented about ten years ago. He provides case studies of a few outstanding examples, such as those of Martin Kemp, David Essex, and the like.

Along the way, he gives us some insights into the trade's attitude towards Jordan, how he came to do Jade's story, and the differences between the UK and US approach to these things. He also tells us, in relation to a £20 (retail) book, where the money goes.

There's nothing dramatically new here for those who've been in the business for years, but there are always people coming along for whom this kind of thing is an eye-opener.

There are editors, and editors

Book editors come in all shapes and sizes. The two chief ones, perhaps, are the hands-on publishing house executives who mould and shape the careers and books of major talents. Chief exemplar: Max Perkins. (He dead, by the way.)

Then there are those fierce souls known as copy editors, or line editors. These are far less senior in the pecking order, but influential none the less, and they go through your manuscript in great detail to correct the spelling and the punctuation. If you're lucky, they might even ask your permission before they tamper with your prose, but some of them just go ahead and change stuff anyway.

Daniel Scott Buck (whose The Greatest Show on Earth was reviewed here on 31 August 2006), reckons that what his generation of writers needs is a new Gary Fisketjon. And, er, if you're not quite sure who he, Fisketjon is a guy in the Max Perkins tradition -- details on the Nashville Scene. And he's still looking for the Great American Novel.

You should also take note that there is a lengthy piece on Tingle Alley about the legendary New Yorker copy editor, Eleanor Gould Packard. (Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.) This is extracted, it seems, from the New York Times. I found it slightly depressing to read, not least because the lady suddenly went deaf. And yes, I do know about Rush Limbaugh, thank you.

Personally I have very mixed feelings about both varieties of editor. Yes, the Max P type can be useful at times, but at other times he/she can be a damn nuisance. Overall, I don't want someone else shaping my books and my career (which is probably why I remain obscure, though happy). I want to take responsibility for my own stuff, and make my own decisions.

A keen-eyed, pedantic copy editor can also be a boon at times, but you don't have to go far to find horror stories about unwarranted interference and wholesale 'improvements' which were anything but. So on the whole, thanks people, but I'd rather do without you lot as well.

Less than 100% accuracy?

We have pondered here, from time to time, about the truthfulness and accuracy of memoirs, particularly that group which Trevor Dolby (see above) and others refer to as misery memoirs.

Connoisseurs of the latter genre may like to consider the New York Times review of Jennifer Lauck's Blackbird. Between the ages of 5 and 12, Lauck was reportedly orphaned, sexually abused, neglected and eventually abandoned. Her account of these events has earned her a lavish blurb from Frank McCourt and an appearance on 'Oprah', which never seems to do a book any harm.

However, the NYT points out that 'reading this book is like listening to testimony from a child-abuse survivor whose dormant memories have surfaced after many years. You want to trust the victim, but it's hard to eliminate suspicion that what you hear may not be entirely accurate.'

Those who seek evidence for lack of accuracy may wish to look at a blog which also goes by the name Blackbird. (Link from Daniel Scott Buck.) This is written by Jonathan Lantry, who was, for a little over three years, Jennifer Lauck's step-brother. He does not quite remember things the way Jennifer does.

One-liners, or thereabouts

The Nature Conservancy now owns Ernest Hemingway's house in Idaho and is taking steps to restore it.

The Wicked Witch of Publishing has a plan for getting Santa to give books to needy children.

Punkrockpenguin has a collection of bad book covers (gee, I dunno, some of 'em look OK to me), and Mark Rayner at The Skwib, from whom the link came, finds a lot of similar stuff in the Carnival of Satire (7 December).

What a shame. Duncan Fallowell, author of the April Ashley book which was plagiarised recently, tells me that the new book, largely nicked from him, was being considered for the J.R. Ackerley prize until the scandal erupted. Mr Fallowell's latest, by the way, is a novel: A History of Facelifting.

L. Lee Lowe offers a podcast of chapter 1 of his YA fantasy novel, Mortal Ghost.

iUniverse books: you may love 'em or hate 'em, but they are not entirely ignored.

Madame Arcati points out that Stephen King, who rarely signs copies of his books, has made some available to support a fund for book-trade freelancers who suffer a catastrophic accident. Go buy, says Madame, and I agree.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wednesday wonders

Is Ed on the phone yet?

It is with deep regret that I report that an English Bishop (Church of England, of course) is in trouble.

Late one evening last week, the Bishop of Southwark arrived home with a bump on his head and no memory of what had happened to him. He was, however, lacking his mobile phone, spectacles, and briefcase. It was assumed, not unreasonably perhaps, that he had been mugged, and details were reported to the police.

It has subsequently emerged, however, that earlier on the evening in question, the Bishop had attended the annual Christmas party, given by the Irish Ambassador, at the Irish Embassy.

Now it is well known, among those who have received Irish hospitality in the past, that the wise man who attends such a function will take with him a teetotal friend so as to have at least one person, at the end of the evening, who is capable of hailing a taxi. But this elementary precaution is one which, I am sorry to say, the Bishop neglected to take.

It has also subsequently emerged -- and it is deeply distressing to have to report this -- that, on the Tuesday evening in question, drinkers at The Suchard in Crucifix Lane, a bar near London Bridge station, were alerted to the fact that a silver-haired man appeared to have climbed into the back of a Mercedes and was throwing a child’s toys around on the back seat.

Paul Sathaporn, 55, the barman, said: 'The owner of the car ran outside and pulled the man out of the back seat. The man sat down on the ground, obviously drunk. Then he decided to lie down.' The man, who claimed, amusingly, to be a bishop, refused the offer of an ambulance and staggered off into the night. A bag of personal belongings was later found in the car and handed over to police.

The Bishop's spokeswoman later said that the Bishop’s belongings had been found and returned. The mugging claim had been abandoned.

Well, this is all painful enough, and one can understand the Bishop telling his flock, the next day, that his head hurt. But now some clergy in the diocese of Southwark are demanding that their Bishop should show penitence. One senior clergyman said, 'The same ethic applies to him as to a first-year curate found drunk outside a youth club.' He quoted 1 Timothy 3: 2-3: 'A bishop must be above reproach . . . not a drunkard.'

Now this is tragic gossip with a vengeance. But my point, at last, is this. There must be a book in this somewhere. My Struggle Against the Demon Drink, perhaps. Big market there. Or: Timothy Was Right.

Is Ed Victor on the phone yet? Will there be a frenzied auction? Will the diocese demand a share of the advance?

It surely cannot be long before details of the deal emerge. All other details already have.

Fat, So?

Susannah Jowitt is a big, handsome lady, and has had several photographs in the Times to prove it. (Though not, sadly, the nude studies that she had taken for her husband's 40th birthday.) She admits to being fat.

However, she is not, as they say here now, bovvered. (It is, I believe, a television thing.) Why not? Because she's fit, healthy, and strong. She takes lots of exercise, and eats rather well. She is not going on a diet.

And -- oh but you've guessed -- she's written a book about it all. Fat, So? will be published by Think Books on 5 January, though it doesn't seem to be on the firm's web site yet. Missing a trick there, I think.

The Great Novels debate

Some years ago I published a non-fiction book called The Truth about Writing. (You can read it for free in the form of a PDF file if you so wish.) In chapter 5 of that book, I argued, almost in passing, that there is no such thing as a Great Novel, as normally defined by the literary establishment. This idea was, I suggested, implicit in the theory of emotion which I was putting forward as the main thrust of chapter 5.

The contention that there is no such thing as a Great Novel, in the absolute sense, did not go down well with everybody, which is entirely understandable. In particular it made Eric Walker uneasy, and he has now produced a lengthy essay which seeks to rebut my argument.

Eric's essay is extremely thoughtful and well argued, and he has tweaked it once or twice following correspondence with me. If you are interested in the Great Novels concept you should certainly go and take a look at it. Be aware, however, that it is not something that you can whizz through in a couple of minutes. It requires time and thought.

While you're there, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and you will quickly realise that the rest of Eric's site is a formidable resource representing an impressive amount of work. There are many other valuable essays: try, for example, Some thoughts on the English language and sanity.

Eric's site is today's must-click link. It specialises in science fiction and fantasy, and may not be what you are looking for, but it shows what an enthusiast can do.

Admelioration and more on self-publishing

There's a self-described 'amateur' novelist who writes a blog called Working Towards the Betterment of Publishing. Admelioration is the word in his URL, and Admelioration says that he (it's probably he) has been paying attention to the publishing industry for nearly a decade now, and so far he has not been terribly impressed by everything he's seen.

Admelioration lists three pieces of work which he believes every aspiring writer would do well to read. One of them is my own On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile; another is Jeremy Robinson's POD People: Beating the Print-on-Demand Stigma; and the third is Mark Levine's The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, which was reviewed here yesterday.

Yesterday's review, by the way, has already generated one or two comments which suggest that I have been a bit naive. Well, very possibly. Naivety, as mentioned here before, has been a lifelong problem for me -- although I have often, and puzzlingly, been simultaneously accused of being cynical.

The point which I hoped to make yesterday, and perhaps didn't make adequately, is that I regard self-publishing, or paying for publication through an established firm, as a perfectly sensible way for sane persons to go, provided they understand exactly what they are doing, and the limitations thereof. I have, after all, been publishing my own work for some six years now.

As mentioned towards the end of my post on 18 July 2006, I have twice helped friends to negotiate terms for subsidised publishing, and in each case the sum involved was several thousand pounds. Both the authors had had long careers in business or public life, were well aware of the value of money, and were hard-nosed men of good judgement. Neither man expected to make a profit, and neither man did. But they both had books that they wanted to see in print, and to get those books set before as wide a public as possible, and they both felt that they had done a perfectly satisfactory deal.

I also feel that it is a little bit unreasonable to criticise commercial companies for being commercial, and seeking to make a profit. Yes, of course BookPros would love to find a real gem, with an author who is prepared to stump up $40,000. Why not? My correspondence reveals that there are people who are prepared to spend far more than $40,000 (in one case known to me, nearly double that) to try to get their writing careers off the ground. And yes, I dare say BookPros will prove to be a profitable and successful company. That was rather my point: other people will note their success and try to emulate it.

You have to take care, and advice, when buying self-publishing services, as you do when buying a car or a house. But I for one am delighted that there are now so many alternative companies to choose from.

Whichever way you look at it, the shape of publishing is changing. It is, as ever, dangerous to make too many predictions. But it looks to me as if the big trade publishers will concentrate more and more on what they perceive to be sure-fire hits: celebrity biographies and so forth. They will take fewer and fewer risks on new authors. And goodness knows, they take precious few now.

This will leave a large number of talented people with even fewer places to go than they have now. Hence they will look increasingly at do-it-yourself outlets. Some will go for places like Lulu, which involves virtually zero cost. Others, wisely or otherwise, will seek to buy a better package.

Those firms which rip off their would-be author customers will wither and die, for their villainy can hardly remain a secret for long. But those that provide value for money will prosper.

As usual in this scenario, it is probably smarter to be on the publishing/bookselling side than to be an author. Though there never has been, and probably never will be, very much money in it for anyone.

Monday, December 11, 2006

They call it Stormy Monday

Good sense on copyright from the FT

Last week saw the publication in the UK of the Gowers report on Intellectual Property (IP), of which more in a moment. And on Saturday the Financial Times ran an editorial which was full of good sense. Headlined 'Intellectual Propriety', the sub-head ran 'The term of copyrights and patents should not be extended'. Here is an extract:

This week, as part of a welter of documents accompanying a budget report, the Treasury published a review of the rules on intellectual property. Written by Andrew Gowers, a former editor of this newspaper, it argues against extending the term of copyright for music, but for reforms that would make intellectual property cheaper to protect and easier to enforce.

That is consistent with the purpose of copyrights, patents and trademarks: they exist to encourage the creation of knowledge, by providing the creator with a period of exclusive use, and to persuade people to make their discoveries public, so others can build on them.

If the revenue from a temporary monopoly is more than the cost of writing, recording or inventing then a financial incentive exists. But because that monopoly has a cost to society - the drug or film or book costs more than it would if it could be freely copied - the term of the intellectual property should be the minimum possible.

The FT (which I think we can assume speaks for its former editor) thus takes the same line as Macaulay in 1841. Macaulay argued that copyright was a form of temporary monopoly, and that monopolies were, in principle, against the public interest. For a fuller discussion, see my post of 6 February 2006.

I fear that 4500 musicians are going to be rather disappointed.

Full details of the Gowers report are on the HM Treasury web site.

The Frontlist

The Frontlist is the subject of a brief article in the International Herald Tribune, a newspaper which chooses, for its own good reasons, no doubt, to refer to it as The Front List.

The Frontlist was described here on 18 July 2006. It is a web site which offers you the opportunity to submit a sample of your novel, whereupon said extract is read and scored by five other people who have also submitted samples. Those bits of amazing prose which score highly are then read by agents and/or publishers who thus hope to avoid having to do their own elimination of the not very impressive by wading through the slush pile.

I had reservations, but I thought people should suck it and see. Scott Pack is quoted as having some reservations too.

The IHT adds little new, but as I said before, 'this entire operation is being run by thoughtful and well-intentioned people -- idealists, even -- who are going to be doing a great deal of work for close to zero money, and it would therefore be churlish to be unkind about it.'

It's early days yet to expect the scheme to have thrown up a winner, but, if you're an eager young hopeful, it's a site to explore. (Link from

Richard in bidding war

Galleycat says that Richard Madeley, male half of the UK's formidable TV pair Richard and Judy, is working on a book about fathers and sons, and that the auction is getting excitable. (The proposed novel has been put aside.)

Meanwhile, everyone continues to rave about the value and importance, to the UK book world, of the Richard and Judy show.

Prizes that no one wants

There is much uproar in blogoland over the prizes that no one wants. Well, not many people. It's all very boring, but if you read Galleycat's posts of 6 December and 7 December you will see that Sobol launched a prize for fiction writers and expected 50,000 entries; so far they've got 1,000 or so, probably because you have to pay $85 to enter.

Anyway, the only reason for mentioning it here is because it reminds me of an article which appeared in Esquire at least forty years ago. That told the tale of a competition (run by a publisher, I think) to find a really great novel. The prize was huge (I seem to remember $200,000), and included sale of film rights to some Hollywood household name. In the end the entries were so poor that the publisher had to commission a professional to write the 'winner'.

I am also reminded of a competition run in 1983 by the Sunday Express, to find a new romantic writer. Over 10 million words were submitted (perhaps 200 novels), but unfortunately only one entry conformed with the requirements of the competition.


Bookslut reports that an audience in New York was stunned (gobsmacked, as we say in England) by the following statement from Milton Glaser:

Glaser, designer of the iconic "I Love New York" design, had an unfortunate Larry Summers moment when he said that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that "women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home." He continued: "Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it's never going to change." About day care and nannies, he said, "None of them are good solutions."
The crowd fell silent, says Bookslut, apart from a hiss or two. Curious, isn't it, how a crowd can be silenced by a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Ansible items

There are ghosts, and ghosts. Ansible reports that Arthur C. Clarke feels he's too old for the writing game, and has asked dynamic 'young' author Frederik Pohl (born two years after ACC) to finish his new novel.

Ansible also quotes the ever-modest James Ellroy: "I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music." (New York Times Magazine interview, 5 Nov.)

And a lot more besides. Go take a look.

While you're at it, go look at David Langford's The End of Harry Potter.

The Writers Ink

There are more ways than one to make a living as a writer, as The Writers Ink shows. And no, they don't bother with an apostrophe. This gang not only have an office in the USA, they have one in Seoul, South Korea, too. Link from my son Jon who met Peter at a party.

Kathy O'Beirne story

If you are keeping half an eye on the Kathy O'Beirne story, you may wish to note that some passionate supporters of that lady continue to post comments on my post of 20 September 2006. One of the latest is a 'counselling psychologist'.

Culture on Sunday

The Sunday Times culture section contained several items of note.

If you have ever wondered what an English pantomime is all about, the review of Dick Whittington at the Barbican gives you a pretty good idea.

There's a discussion of how the television industry hopes to avoid making the same mistakes that the music business made when it comes to permitting downloading. (And copying? See the Gowers report.)

Then there's a discussion of how classical music fans like to download stuff too (who would have guessed?), and can they have a more sophisticated service please.

John Doyle has written a book about the impact of television on Irish society. The Irish didn't get their own TV service until 1961, and at the official opening both President de Valera and Cardinal Dalton warned of the evil influence that TV could have. Well, it sure as hell reduced respect for both politicians and the church. You might like to read this before or after Christine Falls.

A chap called Pynchon has a book out. Apparently.

And the bestseller list shows that Marina Lewycka is still in the top ten (after 23 weeks) with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, of which 557,350 copies have been sold. So far. Thumpy eck, Mavis, that's a lot of books. But she deserves it.

Director of People wanted

The Sunday Times appointments (jobs) section has an advert from HarperCollins for a 'Director of People', which is, presumably, the new name for Human Resources aka Personnel.

The ad describes HC as 'well positioned to embrace the transformation of publishing in the new digital environment'. The Director will be expected to 'enable the company to thrive in a rapidly developing publishing sector that will place increasing emphasis on direct relationships with the consumer'. W.H. Smith et al are going to love that bit, aren't they?

And, above all, the Director needs the 'ambition to play a pivotal role in taking an established and high profile organisation through substantial change to ensure it maintains its competitive edge in a dynamic publishing market.'

Well, it's taken a while, and this isn't the first sign of it, but at last UK publishers seem to have got the message that we're in the digital age and things cannot remain the same, even if you want them to.

Gessen on blogs

Finally, Maud Newton drew my attention to some comments about blogs which were made by Keith Gessen, editor of n+1. Here's part of what Gessen said:

The trouble with [literary] blogs arises when they go from being diaries (very private expressions, telling us something only that person knows) to being basically attention-grabbing mechanisms.... Back in the day, you would occasionally stumble upon some person blogging about their very private reading, what it was like, what their reactions were. Those people still exist, but they're drowned out by people who are just purveyors of literary gossip -- who comment on books they haven't even read, who, as Marco likes to say, are just basically freelance publicists.
Now the man has a point, and it has bothered me for some time. When I first started this blog it consisted almost entirely of stuff that was unique to me, i.e. it was about books that I'd read and enjoyed, and about my ideas on the best way to write fiction, and so forth.

Gradually, and I'm not sure quite how it happened, I drifted into providing (at least part of the time) what a friend of mine used to call tragic gossip -- i.e. snippets of news about the book world. Today's post is an example.

Now the tragic gossip approach has its uses. As a retired person I do have rather more time available to read newspapers and web pages than has someone who has a full-time job (and, often, is trying to write a novel as well). So a kind of filtering process and a bit of reader's-digesting can serve a useful purpose.

And it may be that I, and Keith Gessen, underestimate the usefulness of that. However, I do retain a slightly guilty feeling that the true value (if any) of this blog lies in such original comment and guidance as I can provide in the form of some of my better essays and book reviews. Most of the gossip you can, in fact, get elsewhere.

The trouble is, of course, that the extended essays take rather a long time to do. For weeks now, I have been thinking of doing at least a couple more items on Victorian pornography (parts one and two appeared some time ago), some more about emotion and decision-making for writers, and the literature of transgender, and a lot more. But it is all too easy, I'm afraid, to get distracted.

Note to self: must work on the balance thing.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Two short reviews

Kitty Burns Florey: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

The subject of this non-fiction book (published in the US by Melville House) is the English language; in particular, English grammar.

It's partly in the form of a memoir (the author was taught English by Sister Bernadette), and partly a speculation upon such abstruse topics as whether Mark Twain was a better grammarian than James Fenimore Cooper, and what the hell Gertrude Stein was talking about half the time.

More specifically still, the book deals with a method of diagramming sentences which was once, apparently, quite widely taught, and even popular, in American schools.

Kitty Burns Florey is the author of nine novels and many short stories, and there's lots more about her on her web site. She is also described by the publisher as a 'veteran copyeditor' -- in other words, she's one of those eagle-eyed nit-picking people who want to know why you've referred to a character in your novel as an artist on page 49 and as an artiste on page 113. (I had an answer, and it was a good one. You don't catch me so easy.)

Speaking of nit-picking copyeditors, one of the things we learn from this book is that Eleanor Gould Packard, who worked at the New Yorker for 55 years, once managed to find four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence. The sentence was perpetrated by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wechsler, but no one can remember what it was. (Typical.)

Most of the book concentrates on the diagramming of sentences business. This was invented about a hundred years ago by a couple of teachers named Brainerd Kellogg and Alonzo Reed. (There's that name Brainerd again; we had it earlier in the week, if you remember, and I bet you thought it was a typo.) The system is a bit like parsing, only you do it on a blackboard, or on paper, splitting up the subject, object, definite article and so forth, and setting them out on a sort of tree, with branches at all angles.

On her web site the author gives a brief description of the method but doesn't actually give us a link to an illustration, which I think is a pity. However, the book itself is full of illustrations, sometimes covering two pages.

Having outlined the diagramming of sentences method, and its history, Kitty goes on to apply it to the output of quite a few distinguished writers, and a few who aren't terribly distinguished. Such as George W., who said this.
We want our teachers to be trained so they can meet the obligations, their obligations as teachers. We want them to know how to teach the science of reading in order to make sure there's not this kind of federal -- federal cufflink.
Right... Well said, George. I think.

If you are interested in the English language -- and frankly you have to be very interested to enjoy this book -- you will find lots of intriguing snippets here. Did you know for instance, that the word grammar is 'an outgrowth of the word glamour: they are, in fact, the same word, through the magic of something called "dissimilation," in which glamour becomes grammar in much the same way peregrine becomes pilgrim.'

It was thought, when diagramming was popular, that it was a method of improving children's writing. Well, possibly. Personally, I think the way to improve your writing, when young, is to read lots and lots of well written books: by which I mean books which are grammatical, properly spelt, and properly punctuated. Style I am less concerned about.

If you do that, and acquire an instinctive feel for the language, then formal knowledge of grammar becomes almost irrelevant.

Years ago, in another life, I used to teach English to small boys. And, because of the examination which they would in due course sit, I was obliged to teach them some grammar. I must have been taught this myself, as a child, but by the time I came to teach it I had long since forgotten the difference between an adjective and an adverb, and had to learn it all over again.

In the meantime, however, I had, I like to think, read enough good books to give me the aforementioned instinctive feel for what was correct and what was not. More importantly, I had also acquired a willingness to ignore what was 'correct' if I thought that would communicate more effectively.

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog will make a good Christmas present for anyone who teaches English for a living, and anyone who is studying Eng. Lit.

Nowadays, of course, teachers of English, in England, don't do grammar; read my essay on 'English as she is tort', and weep. All that is important, my dears, is that the children should express themselves.)

And finally, breaking news. Publishers Lunch has just announced that Becky Kraemer, acting on behalf of Melville House, has sold the (presumably paperback) rights to Sister Bernadette to Tina Pohlman at Harcourt, for six figures, for publication in fall 2007.

Nick Parker (editor): Bling, Blogs and Bluetooth

Subtitled 'Modern Living for Oldies', this book is a collection of short articles from the UK magazine The Oldie; a magazine which, as its name implies, is intended for those who are retired, or just plain old.

Essentially, each piece in the book takes a subject which most old people have heard of, but perhaps know little about, and explains what it is. So, for instance, I learnt what Bluetooth is. Or at any rate I did while I was reading the article; I've forgotten it now, of course (short-term memory not being what it was).

Other essays that I read with interest include those on dissing, distant healing, identity theft, McLabour, psychometrics (particularly useful), and the rhubarb triangle (oh yes there is). I decided not to read the one about dogging; I am more of a cat man myself.

All of these were entertaining and informative. Identity theft, one learns, is a way of selling paper shredders to people who don't really need them. And the McLabour item was an eye-opener. Written by environmental activist George Monbiot, it is about how big business buys influence with British politicians. And you know what? British politicians come dirt cheap. For £10,00 you can buy the Government's question-and-answer session on education.

The Oldie is one of the more literate and well informed magazines on the UK market, and this collection gives a pretty good flavour of its contents. It would, obviously, make a good stocking-filler for the older members of your family. It's also a handy -- ahem -- bathroom book.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scott Frost: Never Fear

In 1971, the distinguished English crime writer Colin Watson published a historical survey of crime fiction in England. He called it Snobbery with Violence.

In his first chapter, Watson made the point that, as early as 1851, the Times was complaining about the kind of books to be found on railway bookstalls. 'Every addition to the stock,' said the Times, 'was positively made on the assumption that persons of the better class who constitute the larger portion of railway readers lose their accustomed taste the moment they enter the station.'

In other words, the Times had discovered commercial fiction, and the Times didn't like it.

In 1863, the Quarterly Review went further:
A class of literature has grown up around us... playing no inconsiderable part in moulding the minds and forming the habits and tastes of its generation... Excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim... A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public wants novels, and novels must be made -- so many yards of printed stuff, sensation pattern, to be ready at the beginning of the season.
You get the idea. The Times and the Quarterly Review both enjoyed a good game of Ain't It Awful; and so it has continued ever since.

I mention all that because Scott Frost's Never Fear is totally, completely, and absolutely a work of commercial fiction. It is designed, rather cleverly, to provide exactly what a certain class of reader is looking for, and is prepared to pay for.

As such, I rather admire it, though it is not really to my taste. And it's not to my taste because I am not within (what I take to be) its target audience: which is American, female, and young to youngish; and probably mainly urban.

I am by no means surprised to discover that Scott Frost is an experienced television writer, with credits for some Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks scripts. This experience shows in the writing of his novel, which is crisp, told in scenes, with telling dialogue.

Never Fear is related in the first person, set in the present day, and its location is the Pasadena/Los Angeles area. Our heroine is police Lieutenant Alex Delillo (female, despite the androgynous first name). She is a mature woman with a grown-up daughter. There is some family history in the background, referred to briefly, which is presumably set out in detail in volume one of the Delillo series (Run the Risk), but that book is not published in the UK.

Family connections also feature heavily in this book. The plot involves several murders and sexual assaults, with the death of Alex's half-brother early on; a search for Alex's father, who may or may not be a killer and molester of women, occupies much of the story. (We have, almost inevitably, some repressed memories coming to the surface.) There is also a possible cover-up by members of the neighbouring LA police department. Oh, and a love interest, of course.

Everything about this book indicates that it's written by a pro who is well used to tailoring his work to an audience's (perceived) needs. The first book, judging by a comment or two on, was a bit too gory and sadistic for some, and here Frost seems to me to have played down that angle somewhat.

The key question, of course, is whether he, as a man, has been able to create a female lead character who will convince his target readership. Others will judge that better than I, but he seems to me to have had a pretty good stab at it.

The plot gets complicated at times, but again Frost does a good job of guiding the reader through it; I had my private doubts about one aspect of it (whether an actor who changed his name every couple of years could nevertheless work regularly as an actor), but that will probably float by most readers without too much trouble.

All in all, totally professional. Like most such work, just a little bit mechanical, but Frost definitely does his best to give this book a touch of class, and sometimes succeeds.

Should anyone care, the trade paperback edition of this book is nicely typeset, by Avon DataSet Ltd., and printed by our old friends Mackays of Chatham.

Run the Risk, I just noticed, will be published in the UK in August 2007. Such are the mysterious ways of publishers, but maybe there were contractual difficulties.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wednesday wanderings

Fame at last

My novel How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous is reviewed by the Underground Literary Alliance, no less. Crumbs. You can read it for free, of course. The novel, that is. (Thanks to Steve Clackson for pointing me to the review.)

The ULA book-review blog was started in September, and is edited by Victor Schwartzman. (Victor also, by the way, runs a blog about blood pressure, if you have that problem.)

Victor describes the ULA blog as follows: 'The Underground Literary Alliance is a loosely knit group of literary miscreants. We are primarily zine writers, which often means we are only published on the internet. We believe literature today can and must be more provocative. The blog’s real purpose is to draw attention to great underground writing.'

River of Possibilities

Speaking of free reads, Marti Lawrence has made her novel River of Possibilities available as a free PDF. You can also buy it, and her other stuff, on Lulu.

Scott Stein gets to work

Scott Stein has a novel coming out early next year, and he's wrestling with the problem of how to get it known. (Don't we all? Actually I don't, much, which is why...)

Anyway, Scott has embarked on an ambitious programme which seems to involve at least as much work as writing the book. There are four separate web sites, three of them featuring characters in the book, and the fourth is operated by a 'group of students' who are campaigning for the principal character as President.

All four of these sites are extensive, and interlock. It would take some time to explore them all. The one I like best is that of caseworker Alice Pitney, whose motto is: 'Not wanting help is the clearest possible indication that in fact you need it.' Right on, sister.

And you thought you'd finished once you wrote the book!

Here are the links:
Mean Martin Manning's home page
Mean Martin Manning for President
It's Dr. Karen
Caseworker Alice Pitney's blog

The Jimston Journal

The Jimston Journal is a free online zine, describing itself as a publication for the arts.

The editor, a man of exquisite good taste, describes the GOB as someone who 'has been quick to spot changing trends in the arts.' Well, gee -- scuffs toe of boot on the ground in embarrassed fashion -- I dunno about that. I just sit here and read stuff, is all.

Anyway, there's fiction, photography, and a lot more. It takes a lot of work to put together something like this.

Black Horse extra

I have remarked here in the past, more than once, about my fondness for prolific writers: the 5,000 words a day men -- they were mostly men, though see below -- who churned out stuff for the pulp magazines.

Before I forget, there's a book about those 1930s guys, and an excellent read it is too. It's by Harold Brainerd Hersey. Title: Pulpwood Editor. Publisher: Fred. A Stokes & Co., New York, 1937. It's the autobiography of a man who cracked the whip over the galley slaves, but written with great affection and respect, and it's full of extraordinary stories. There are quite a few copies on Abebooks but unfortunately they're not cheap. Try a good library.

But I digress. I got on to the million-words-a-year men because the latest edition of Black Horse Extra has articles about a couple of such in the field of westerns, Lauran Paine and Keith Hetherington.

The western, it seems, is alive and well. It's one of those niche areas with a loyal core of readers who've never even heard of the Booker (lucky them).

Oh, and Misfit Lil is still at it. And so, it seems, are her sisters.

Way back in 1972, bestselling novelist Dean Koontz noted that women are outstanding writers of westerns. "Women often have a talent for research and a feel for historical periods," he said. For many years, the late Irene Ord, formerly a romance author, penned BHWs under several male pseudonyms... Today, the Hale line has not only Gillian F. Taylor, but the women who write first-class western novels as Eugene Clifton, Layne Kenric, Steven Gray, T. M. Dolan, Terry Murphy and Ty Kirwan.

Black Horse Western novels are issued by Robert Hale in England, and come out at the rate of ten a month. (No, I am not making that up.)

Not so miserable?

Amid all the discussion about misery memoirs perhaps I can point you to one book which is definitely fiction, though doubtless based partly on fact. And it has a positive ending. The book is Matilda, by Bill Walsh (a retired plasterer), published by Penguin, and you can read a review of it in the Irish Emigrant.

The economics of publishing

Galleycat reports that Forbes, the business and finance specialists, have produced a report on publishing.

Contents include Cory Doctorow on why he gives away free copies of his books (you really should have already read one of his various statements about this), a piece by a man who has written 2,923 book reviews for Amazon, and charges for it, and a video on the future of publishing.

Also found on Galleycat is a reference to a rather more scholarly book on the economics of publishing. Entitled The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century, it's written by three Fordham University professors. 'It's a nutty business but a great business,' says one of them.

Well, it is if you don't weaken.

I suspect that not many people will read this book. In my experience, most people who work in an industry not only know very little about the larger picture of that industry, but they don't want to know. They just wait for five o'clock. Which is all very human, and from a certain point of view it's a good thing: it does create a window of opportunity for those who are prepared to take a bit of trouble.

Lulu book wins prize

David Lindsley, a UK engineer of mature years, I think we may say, has won a prestigious award from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

David's book, Far Point, was published through in February of this year. It has now won a prize at the "Engineering Media Challenge" book awards in London. The aim of the Challenge is to present a positive image of the engineering profession -- through books, plays, radio or TV dramas, or other formats. The contest was launched this year by Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering in collaboration with the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors. These are serious people.

PDF on the cheap

Do you ever need to convert a file to PDF format?. Lucky you if you don't. If you do, you can either buy Adobe's Acrobat program, which costs a small fortune, or look for something cheaper.

I once had an early copy of Acrobat, but it doesn't work on Windows XP. So I have been trying out a number of freebies. To be precise: PDF995, CutePDF, and PDF Creator.

Even with the proper gear, Acrobat, you soon discover that making PDF files is a complicated and tricky business. And if you're making a PDF for a professional printer, a file which is going to be turned into a book, you probably have to have Acrobat to do a good job.

However, the freebies work, after a fashion, if you just want to produce a longish file to post on the web, for instance.

Just as a test, I made a PDF of the same file, using each of the three programs. And funnily enough the end result looks different in each of them. The one with the darkest, clearest print was PDF995.

However, be warned that, if your original file is in a reduced page size, say 9" x 6" instead of the normal A4 (or whatever), the free programs will still reproduce it as if it was laid out on A4. And sometimes they have a nasty habit of altering the layout, so that a page which you have carefully adjusted to finish on page 29 will suddenly run over on to page 30.

You don't get much for nothing. If you want a program halfway between free and Acrobat, try Serif PagePlus. The current version is PagePlus 11, but earlier ones can sometimes be found as free handouts on the CDs on the cover of computer magazines, and version 8 onwards will create PDFs. You do, however, have to learn how to use the program, which takes 20 to 30 hours. At least.

Next year, I believe, the new version of Word will contain a built-in facility for PDF conversion. WordPerfect, I think, can do it already.

Isn't the publishing world fun?