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.)
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.