Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thursday thomethings

As usual, much seems to be happening in the book world. There are so many people producing things, it's a wonder that anyone has any time to read.

Unimagined -- a different kind of Muslim

Clive Keeble has read -- three times, I gather -- a new book by Imran Ahmad: Unimagined -- a Muslim Boy Meets the West. Published by the Aurum Press.

'Occasionally,' says Clive, 'booksellers come across a title which they believe is a defining moment in their trade.' And, by way of background reading, he recommends Scott Pack's recent blog posting 'Muslim Toast', a post to which, I may say, the comments form an important adjunct.

At this point I was going to link you to the Aurum page which describes Unimagined. But can I find a mention of it on the Aurum site? No, sir and madam, I cannot. You try. (See note below.) Since it is due for publication on 1 March, I would expect Unimagined to be in the forthcoming books section; but it ain't. And in any case, Scott Pack reckons that it's on sale now.

Fortunately, the book has its own web site. From which we find that Sue Townsend likes the book too, which ought to be good enough for anyone.

Unimagined, you will discover, was once a self-published book, with a crappy cover (the author claims he spent a whole hour on it), until Scott Pack found it in his Waterstone's days, passed it on to an agent, and the rest... isn't actually history, because it's contemporary.

All in all, however, this book is a nice illustration of the author's perennial problem, one which I have highlighted here more than once. The author's chief task is to write something that makes readers go Wow! Just like a three-minute music track on YouTube or wherever. Pull off that trick and your book will make its way.

Clive Keeble has it in his shop window; and no one's paid him a penny.

Later note: when I checked the link to Aurum, a piccy of the cover turned up, top right. But I still can't find a description of the book.

Very nearly The Greatest Show on Earth

And here's another self-published book which is making a few people go Wow!, if not yet the entire universe. It's Daniel Scott Buck's The Greatest Show on Earth. Reviewed here on 31 August 2006, in what I hope I managed to make sound like suitably awed tones, this book has achieved recognition in a number of quarters.

First there was 3:AM Magazine, which named it as one of the novels of the year. And now we have the very hard-working and much respected Poddy Mouth (aka Poddy Girl) listing it as one of the top six in her Needle Awards. (The top six were whittled down, by the way, from 1,600 full-length entries.)

And it ain't done yet. The top six from Poddy now go to a panel of distinguished publishing folk -- editors and agents -- who will choose which is the absolute 'best' of these six self-published tomes.

Now the result of that will be really interesting, not least because I did suggest, in my own review, that The Greatest Show on Earth might be a bit too hot for any of the big-time firms to handle.

The new filters

Someone remarked here, in a recent comment, that the problem with most self-published material is that it's crap, and that the professional agent/editor selection process acts as an invaluable filter in sorting out the rubbish from that which might be readable.

Um. Well. Yes. Theoretically.

The problem is, of course, that the agent/editor selection process has been demonstrated, time and time again, to be a rather poor sort of filter. In my book The Truth about Writing, followed by my extended essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I provided page after page of examples of mistakes made in both directions. (Free PDF copies of both books are available, by the way,)

In other words, I listed massively successful books (successful eventually, that is) which were earlier rejected by agents and publishers, plus books which were bought for vast sums of money but which turned out to be works that no reader, in practice, was prepared to pay money for.

I am therefore coming around to the view that, yes, a filter mechanism of some sort definitely is needed (for small press and self-published work), if we are not each to be horribly disappointed, over and over again, by what Scott Pack refers to as the 50-page test. (And 50 pages is, in my view, more than generous.) What is needed is someone, or some group of someones, whose judgement we come to trust, and whose recommendations turn out to be not completely unreliable.

All of which brings me round to Shelfari. This is a web site which I mentioned some time ago -- mentioned politely, but without much real enthusiasm. To me it initially seemed, if I may be frank, rather nerdy and adolescent. But I am beginning to see how it, and other sites like it, might actually perform a rather useful function; at least in principle.

If you take a look at the site you will soon get the idea. Visitors are invited to list the books that they own, or have read, which they particularly enjoyed, and then to put forward suggestions to other readers.

Now this site may not by any means be the complete answer to the filter situation. And Poddy Mouth isn't a complete answer either. But they are gropings towards a new, alternative filter; or series of filters.

Other alternatives have also been mentioned here in recent months, such as The FrontList and YouWriteOn.com. These mostly deal (as I understand it) with as yet unpublished books. But again, they are steps in the right direction.

Perhaps the ideal filter might be one for those whose taste in fiction is already well established. Suppose, for instance, that you have decided (as I did at one point in life) that your chief interest in reading is crime fiction. If so, what you ideally need is a site where not just one reviewer gives you her views, but where a group of equally enthusiastic fans for this particular genre can collectively, so to speak, express their views.

Amazon is one such arena, provided, of course, that you get a large enough sample of ratings from genuine readers; and not just one five-star review from Auntie Vera in Huddersfield.

We need others.

Ex Libris Press

Roger Jones, until recent retirement to Jersey, used to run a small independent bookshop in Wiltshire. And, like all small independent bookshop owners, he had to be quick on his feet to keep his children in food and shoes.

Roger's solution was to run, on the side of his desk, a small publishing company, Ex Libris Press; this has now produced more than 120 books. More to the point, perhaps, the Press also offers a book-production service.

Unlike most such services, this one is not print-on-demand, but instead goes for short runs of between 50 and 1,000 copies, together with advice on marketing and similar matters. Roger will not take on every book which is offered to him, and will certainly let you know (tactfully) if he thinks you are likely to be disappointed with the outcome.

Dogfight at the OK corral

In the cutthroat world of big business, a nasty, knock-down and stamp-on-'em row is developing about selling English-language books in mainland Europe. This is of concern only to those published by mainstream houses -- and, frankly, can be left to the professionals even then -- but it represents serious money to some companies. If you want to know the ins and outs, Publishers Weekly has a summary. (Link from booktrade.info.)

Forecasting change

The Guardian has an amusing piece on the problems of forecasting the future of publishing. My favourite quote: 'It takes a special kind of fool to augur change in the book world anyway.' Ah me. And I do it all the time.

There is also news of a lovely new publisher called Social Disease, the owner of which says that it is based on the premise that 'Zadie Smith is not fucking interesting'.

Oh, dearie, dearie me. How to make enemies and get cut dead in The Ivy, in one easy lesson.

And it seems that, from some points of view at least, MySpace is the place to be.

Oh, the energy! And the ambition! And the youth! One can hardly bear it.

Meanwhile, HarperCollins are losing money.

We live in interesting times.

10 comments:

Clive Keeble said...

Michael

On this day, of all days, many thanks for mentioning "Unimagined"

The book is a fantastic and uplifting read ; but more importantly, it should act as a bridge to better understanding of the islamic world.

Thank you again, dear friend.

Andrew O'Hara said...

“Unimagined” doesn’t strike me as the kind of book that does much to create an understanding of Muslims--unless we’re needing to understand playboy Muslims.

Obviously born of privilege, young Imran appears to have lived a silver spoon life not uncommon among the rich coming from that region—he’s merely written a book about it, including his fetish for Jaguars, girls and bubble-gum cards. One biography (“Shooting Star Hospice”) notes that, “too lazy to get the grades he needed…he ended up at Stirling University in Scotland, learning about Chemistry, Islam and women.”

He’s now a VP with GE Capital, active in the insurance business, on the board of British Muslims for Secular Democracy and likes Starbucks coffee.

It doesn’t appear that, in real life, Imran could have gone through a whole lot of angst “fitting in” unless losing the baby contest truly scarred him, but then it’s all in how you write it. Fun reading, I’m sure, but not exactly informative. I'll pass on trying it based on the info available about his life :)

Clive Keeble said...

Andrew.

Please read the actual book before casting judgement.

If you call living in a bedsit in 1960's London with a young family is the world of privilege then we come from different places. Imran's father worked hard and integrated into British society : Imran has not gotten to his present positions by anything other than hard work and dedication to purpose.

Imran is the sort of person who chooses to make light of adversity : its in the book. Sure his family was middle class in Pakistan but that did not give him, or his family, a pre-ordained place in British society. They started there on the bottom of the pile with all the other early 1960's immigrants : expected to take any work going and accept all the racialist insults which were thrown their way, live in poor accomodation and try and work their way up the ladder. Its in the book.

Please read the book and then you might just be the wiser.

That's more than enough from me today.

Martin said...

With music, there have been several web sites implementing the "people who like what you like also like this" algorithm. It should be easy to do the same with books. In fact, Amazon already does in a fashion with its recommendations.

All you need is a database where people have rated albums or books. Then you compare the individual recommendation-seeker's ratings with the entire database.

Anonymous said...

The site for Social Disease seems to have been taken over by a domain seller. Not too promising.

Imran Ahmad said...

Dear Clive,

Thank you for your very kind comments about Unimagined. I continue to be touched and overwhelmed by how nice so many strangers are being about it, especially those in the industry.


Dear Andrew,

Thank you for expressing your assumptions about Unimagined. I would like to take this opportunity to address your comments.

Using the same factual information, Unimagined could have been written in a completely different way and presented as a ‘misery memoir’. In fact, some publishers were thinking of it in those terms, and berated the fact that it was ‘not miserable enough’. I had no interest in presenting my life as miserable, and preferred to keep the narrative upbeat – without ignoring some of the more uncomfortable aspects. As I write on the first page: ‘This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.’

(One of the low points of my life was having to stay up all night to prepare for a difficult and very important Chemistry exam the next morning – for which I had done no work at all. It was entirely my fault and the way this is described in Unimagined makes it funny, but it wasn’t at the time).

I am very grateful to my parents and to Britain.

My parents came to this country when racism was normal and acceptable, and there was no such concept as ‘equal opportunity’. They dragged us up by sheer hard work (and without clinging to self-pity) from sub-class to middle-class, earning all the benefits and opportunities which that brings.

I am grateful to Britain for many reasons. In just my short lifetime, this country has completely transformed itself to the extent that now any hint of racism is completely unacceptable. (It could be argued that this has gone too far the other way, but that is another debate). The concept of ‘equal opportunity’ is firmly embedded (more so than in any so-called ‘Islamic’ country). I am grateful to Britain for the many opportunities it has given me, some of which I used well and some of which I wasted. (I relate this with extreme honesty in the book).

There is plenty in the book about Islamic theology and practice (and cultural issues), the disagreements within Islam, and the tension that occurs with Western society, its ethos and values. This theological angst is woven throughout the narrative, but is not concentrated in a way that would bore the reader. Some publishers said that there was ‘too much theology’, but this is what makes Unimagined the story of a Muslim boy, as well as an Asian boy, and also just a boy. So, I respectfully disagree with your assertion that Unimagined is not ‘the kind of book that does much to create an understanding of Muslims’.

The angst of being different, of not belonging, is definitely conveyed in the book, I just choose not to torture the reader with it.

On to some of your other points.

When I was a teenager, I laboured under the belief that a car defined your social status and that if you had a desirable car, then a desirable woman would slip into your lap (or at least the passenger seat). Now, with the benefit of decades of experience and some acquired wisdom, I see that this belief is somewhat flawed. However, I write honestly about how that belief affected my perceptions and behaviour at the time.

I do believe that it is not uncommon for teenage boys to be preoccupied with girls and cars. Simon Templar was my chosen role model at one time and he drove a Jaguar XJS (in ‘Return of the Saint’), so I had a desire for this car. I’m not sure that you are being fair in describing this as a 'fetish'. Similarly, do you consider an interest in girls to be a ‘fetish’? I beg to differ, sir, and assert that – when one is a teenage boy – an interest in anything other than cars and girls would be a fetish.

Your comment on the bubblegum cards makes no sense. I was five years old and all the boys in my neighbourhood collected them. Some older boys conned me out of my cards – by inventing a game that made no sense – and I was very upset. Why you would regard this as a ‘fetish’ is beyond me – I believe that proud collection of themed cards is quite normal in most boys.


My summary biography which you quote from (which is actually on my website www.unimagined.co.uk and not that of The Shooting Star Children’s Hospice, as you state) is meant to be funny and self-deprecating. Unfortunately, this is not conveyed because you quote only fragments of it.

Is it possible that you are an American? That would explain this misperception, because many Americans are unfamiliar with the self-deprecation and understatement which are the foundation stones of British humour. I have many dear American friends and discovered this cultural misalignment a long time ago.

There is an implication on your part that I cannot be representative of Muslims, because I like Starbucks, and thus presumably am not downtrodden, alienated, segregated, poor, radicalised and angry. On this, sir, I must disagree with you most strongly. This is precisely the kind of stereotyping which I am committed to addressing.

You are the first person who has expressed an opinion on Unimagined (and a rather strong one at that), without having read it. I put it to you, sir, that Unimagined is insightful and informative, because that is what everyone else – who has read it – has stated.

Life can have challenges, but can still be viewed retrospectively as funny, rather than miserable.

I do hope that you will consider reading Unimagined and give the book a chance to address your issues.

Best regards,

Imran Ahmad

www.unimagined.co.uk

Andrew O'Hara said...

I will apologize. I thought I was somewhat clear in stating that my reluctance to read the book was based on the information available on the web about the author--some of which was, admittedly, BY him and seemed to me a bit incongruent with the stated purpose of the book as stated by Mr. Keeble.

I am indeed selective in what I read and this is not the first time I have researched an author to pick up up on what I sense to be incongruities. In so doing, I avoid reading every book that comes out. If biographical comments attributable to you were intended as humor, I will admit to having not picked up on it, and perhaps I am a sourpuss in a world at war.

I work with a good number of muslims whose stories lack humor in a world aflame, and am more interested in works about the true struggles of muslims being displaced--not out of convenience, but out of fear and the desire to simply survive. I am truly happy for your story of childhood and success in Britain and congratulate you on it. I pray FAR more heartily, however, for a return of serenity and peace to the many muslims who are faced with no place to hide--much less "a place to fit in."

I'm sure you are aware of these issues, yet there is nothing I read that suggests you can speak to them from personal experience. I'm sure you do speak eloquently of your experience growing up in Britain and whatever trauma you faced with ethnic acceptance. In terms of the Islamic experience, however, your subject does not interest me as does the other--hence my lack of interest in your book.


I apologize for not taking an interest in what I'm sure is an excellent book--for its topic. I am sure it will even serve a good purpose in better basic ethnic understanding, still needed in many quarters. My heartfelt wishes for your continued success.

Paul Perry said...

If one wishes to know whether "the public" (or a defined section of it) likes icecream, or gravy powder, or anything else, one finds a group of them & tries it on them. This works.
What DOESN'T work, is to ask an industry specialist, or someone who claims to be able to intuit the potential customes. That's what the publishing industry does. I think there is a lesson there...

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