Thursday, September 27, 2007


Apologies, but I have computer problems this week and posts are likely to be thin on the ground. This one is being written on a very strange machine in an internet cafe. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Stuff from the weekend

Last week I was having a quiet cup of coffee in my local, green, climate-friendly, and fair-trade cafe, when I came across a copy of a journal called The Spark. This is a freebie, issued every three months, and financed mainly by adverts for complementary health services and the like.

Right at the back of The Spark I found an article by Catharine Stott. It's about the virtues and advantages of being an unrepentant childless person, and I found it remarkably forthright and interesting. It isn't going to please everyone, however, and will offend some.

Finding this article is a bit of a fag, but you go The Spark site first; then you click on the Spark editorial download link; this produces a 5.99 MB pdf file, but if you've got broadband that isn't a problem; then you go to page 31.

I take my hat off to a man who can write, you know. Every time. Here's an example which is a couple of weeks old now, but will still serve its purpose very nicely.

Few UK celebrities have had as much publicity in the past few weeks as Nigella Lawson (a TV cook of much fame and distinction). Ms Lawson is, imho, and in the ho of many other red-blooded males, a remarkable example of female pulchritude, and I have devoted much thought over the past few weeks to finding a succinct and appropriate term of description.

Ms Lawson, you see, is a pleasantly rounded person, of the shape which was once fashionable, and admired, before women got into this insane 'we-gotta-be-slim' mode. Think Jane Russell, if you're old enough. (I'm not the only person to have noticed this similarity, by the way.)

Anyway, A.A. Gill, in the Sunday Times, has cracked this succinct-description problem for me. The term he uses to describe Ms Lawson is moreish. Which is very clever, in that it conveys a due sense of lusciousness while also incorporating an appropriate reference to food.

Not only that, but Mr Gill continues in admirable form and style:
As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t anything like enough Nigella or voluptuous coquetry on television. She has developed a sort of gastronomic Method preparation, a sort of Stanislavsky cooking. Before our eyes, she becomes the thing she’s making: a slinky-fingered dish of baby squid dipped in mayonnaise, a darkly sumptuous and tempting chocolate mousse, a brazen splayed poussin. Nigella is an ingredient shape-shifter, an organic transformer. One minute, it’s merely bread and butter pudding; the next, it’s the goddess’s heaving breasts.
I couldn't do better than that in a month of Sundays.

I am not the first, of course, to notice that Katie Price's big-selling novel Crystal was ghosted by Rebecca Farnworth. But in searching for some info on who RF might be, I found this lengthy article about ghosting in general in the Telegraph.

I haven't followed up every single Google reference, but I looked at a good few, and still couldn't find out anything useful about the talented Rebecca. Except that her agent is Margaret Hanbury. All other reports just say she's Katie's ghost.

As I have said before, if I were forty years younger, a ghost is what I would be. Definitely.

Quite a few UK newspapers have picked up on the fact that the Oxford dictionary -- source of all wisdom on spelling (I regret to say, since I went to the Other Place) -- is dropping hyphens. By the thousand, apparently.

Well, it was ever thus. In the 1970s, when I began writing crime novels, firearm was officially fire-arm. Except in the real world, so Oxford soon changed it to firearm; then, just as I had got used to typing living-room et cetera, it became a living room. And well within living memory, today used to be to-day.

Oh, my dears, the whole of the UK is absolutely agog with the PFD story, mentioned here last week.

The Times last Friday had a big article, coupled with a complicated chart of who is connected to whom, and now the Guardian's at it.

This is not a simple matter, I have decided. It isn't as simple as commerce versus art, for instance, with the wicked new bosses wanting to make PFD go commercial, and the saintly agents in post wanting to keep it pure. For one thing, much of the talent is highly commercial in nature. So perhaps it's more a question of autonomy. Though one might think that true autonomy went out the window a while back, with the original sale to CSS in 2001.

Anyway, whatever it's all about, this one will run and run.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Friday stuff early

I came across an advert which said, quite simply, 'I did do it.' Which I thought was very clever. And look where it leads. Which is also pretty clever.

You might, perhaps, wish to take a look at the publicity for the London Book Festival, which seems to be being organised from California. This particular Festival, which says that it has no connection with the London Festival of Books, is running a competition to find books which have been overlooked and which deserve greater attention from the international book-trade community.

I find the whole thing slightly puzzling, frankly, and I think you would have to read the small print very closely before deciding whether to enter a book. The cost is $50, but you can enter a self-published book, and it doesn't matter when it was published.

Ah, you just can't keep a good woman down. Or something like that. I say this because Mitzi Szereto is running two more courses on erotic writing.

'Have you ever considered writing erotic fiction?' (It says here.) 'If not, why not? It is not porn but a stylised and sophisticated form of literature that is fun to write and easy to sell.' (I've heard that one before.) 'The workshop’s aim is to break down barriers in people’s writing. There's no need to be fearful or suppress your writing because of some inner censor. Workshop will consist of a lecture, group discussions, writing exercises and an overview of the marketplace for those considering publication.'

And all like that. Details of one course at Bournemouth here, 27 September, and another one on the Isle of Wight, 16-18 November. (Both in the south of England, if you're wondering.)

Next week's Radio Times (which is the almost-a-century-old name for the BBC's list of TV and radio programmes, plus all the other channels as well) features, on the cover, a photo of Billie Piper in the role of Belle de Jour. That's Belle de Jour as in alleged contemporary call girl and blogger. The original blog became a book which is now a TV drama.

I forget now whether anyone ever proved that blogger Belle was a real call girl, or whether the whole thing was made up by a clever writer from day one. And I'm not even sure that anyone cares any longer. But I am inclined to doubt whether the latest Belle on film will match the original of Bunuel's famous film. A wonderful cool, puzzling, ambiguous thing. I remember it quite well even though it's about forty years since I saw it.

Anyway, that got me thinking about another blog whose bona fides were questioned by some. I found myself wondering what had happened to Wandering Scribe (aka Anya Peters) recently. More particularly, I wondered how her book was selling.

Well, the original blog has gone fairly quiet. And the blog which was set up by her principal doubter (Wanderingscribe) therefore doesn't have a lot to say either. But he does (3 June) make some interesting comparisons between the cover of Anya's book and the covers of some other misery memories. Seems these things are getting as stereotyped as the covers of certain romantic novel series.

Anya's doubter has also investigated (1 June) the question of sales of her book. It seems they aren't all that impressive. During the course of this discussion, however, we also learn that another successful misery memoir, Please, Daddy, No (a pornographic title if ever I read one)was ghost written by Andrew Crofts, who was once in line to assist Anya Peters. He certainly keeps busy.

Further to yesterday's mention of Durham Literary Festival (they've got two Booker Prize winners -- good, eh? Oh, all right then), I saw that the programme is being kicked off by some (mercifully) non-Arts-Council-funded writers from Tonto Press. So all is not entirely lost.

Getting on a bit? Maybe you ought to read Lillian B. Rubin's 60 On Up. What do you do with thirty-odd years of retirement? Is it OK to go on having sex? Will the kids look after you? And all like that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Miscellaneous goods (and bads)

Charles Whiting, the ultra-prolific British author (more than 350 books) has died at the age of 80. His work was discussed here on 6 July 2005 and there's an obituary in the Times.

Various people are asking whether trade paperbacks can save literary fiction (see Galleycat for a summary).

The answer is no. Nothing can save literary fiction. It isn't a question of format or cost; it's a question of boredom.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, and you can even fool the same people for several years -- or books -- at a time. But eventually the penny drops.

Sadly, I am not one of them as cares whether the mighty UK literary and entertainment agency PFD remains intact, or fragments into a thousand splinter groups, with talent huffing off in all directions. But the Independent has various articles on the situation (links from, and, of course, if you want the real story of who is sleeping with whom, Madame Arcati has the sordid truth.

It can't be very comfortable, spending so much time hiding under so many beds, but Madame has a Fleet Street background, and those guys (and gals) will do anything for a story. Madame has updates, by the way, on top of the original post linked to above, so go to the main site and learn even more about adultery, lesbianism, the licking of postage stamps and tying up parcels of paper with string and sealing wax.

Steve Tiano, book designer and more, has been interviewed (16 September) by Paula Berinstein on The Writing Show. Paula asks some good questions, and touches upon my favourite book-design topic: why book design is more important for the reader than you think. (And, incidentally, much more important than readers realise.)

Are there any readers of this blog who live in Hull, England? If so, Tindal Street Press are organising a launch for Daphne Glazer's novel By the Tide of the Humber. Thursday 27 September from 7 till 9 pm, at the Live Art Space, Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square HU1 3RA. You need an invite, but give 'em a call, say you read it here: contact Emma Hargrave by phone 0121 773 8157, or email

The world is full of literary festivals. Naturally, being grumpy, I am not a great fan. I read the programme and as often as not find nothing I would like to go to. But hey, don't let me put you off.

I mention all this because there's a litfest coming up in Durham, England, 29 September to 13 October. Details here.

Edmond Clay is as unlikely a reader of the Daily Mail as ever I came across, even online, but he draws my attention to an article about people who will do absolutely anything to appear on TV. He reminds me that I once wrote a novel about that kind of thing. As did Daniel Scott Buck, only his is rather better.

The Daily Mail article, by the way, isn't just a snippet. It goes on and on and on. No shortage of examples, it seems. My favourite is the woman who says this: 'Ultimately, being on Big Brother would be my dream. Then I'd really feel that I had been a success in life.'

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Not so long ago, when recommending to you the free online magazine, the Jimston Journal, I quite overlooked one important feature. It is that the editor of said journal, Jim Jimston aka Andrew F. O'Hara, is himself the author of a recently published book called The Swan.

Subtitled 'Tales of the Sacramento Valley', this is a work inspired by John Steinbeck. You can buy The Swan in hardback or paperback, but, as in the case of all sensible publications these days, you can download the whole thing in pdf form first.

Mike French is the author of a novel called The Dandelion Tree, and he has a blog on which he talks about the processes of writing and marketing the book. But wait, before you rush off to the next item, thinking that this is all very familiar -- he covers a lot of other ground as well. And in any case, those of you in a similar position can learn quite a lot from Mr French's experience.

Said author also has another web site, on which he is posting the book chapter by chapter, but only when encouraged to do so by readers' votes. Interesting idea. Both web sites, by the way, are a cut above the average in terms of design.

Back in September 2005, I wrote a post entitled 'Who is John Twelve Hawks?' During the past two years, this has generated a surprising amount of comment.

Now I find that Steve Huff has been doing some serious research into the author's true identity. Steve describes his extensive enquiries on his blog, and he has also written a longer and somewhat varied version of the same piece on Blogger News Network.

Steve chooses not to state the name of the man whom he believes to be lurking behind the Twelve Hawks pseudonym, but, with the aid of Google, it really isn't difficult to work out who he has in mind.

And who, you may be wondering, is Steve Huff? Well, he says he's a crime writer and a tenor. But that doesn't sound very likely, does it? Could it be that this is just another pseudonym for the Twelve Hawks guy, banging the drum in a different way?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Short reviews

Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now

The Power of Now is a book about spiritual enlightenment, and it comes endorsed by Oprah, no less. To some people this will doubtless render it instantly trivial, and I am bound to say that I was not, myself, overwhelmed by it; however, the book is well written and well thought out, and it might provoke thought; and that is, I imagine, one of the author's aims.

I hesitate to try to summarise a book of this nature, but the title certainly implies an emphasis on the importance of the present, as opposed to the past. And that, at least, is something that I sympathise with. As I mentioned the other day, I have recently met or corresponded with two old men who find that memories of the past are considerably burdensome to them. And it has surely been the case, since the time of Marcus Aurelius, that wise men have advised us that the past cannot hurt us.

Eckhart Tolle goes one step further, I think.

Time isn't precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time -- past and future -- the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.

I must say that I consider that a sound point. It is one which I think is particularly relevant to writers.

I can't speak for any writer other than myself, but I certainly became aware, some time in my twenties, that I was in danger of selling the present, so to speak, in order to cash in on the future.

Most people who want to write have to do their writing (at least to begin with) on top of everything else in life: earning a living, commuting, cooking, eating, keeping fit, maintaining some sort of social life. The result of all this is that writers are often rushing from a to b, longing for the activity of the present to be over so that they can get back to work on the book, longing for the book to be finished so that they can start showing it to agents, longing for the publisher to make her bloody mind up so that you can start buying things with that huge advance. And so on. This is a deadly dangerous frame of mind to get into, and Tolle at least reminds us of that.

Martin Cruz Smith: Stalin's Ghost

When I reviewed Martin Cruz Smith's previous novel, I gave some indication of MSC's background, and how he comes to be such an outstanding thriller writer. So I won't repeat that here.

Stalin's Ghost is the sixth in a series of books about Arkady Renko, an investigator (detective) in Moscow (usually Moscow, though he gets about a bit). This book is not, actually, one of MSC's best, and like its predecessor it is a bit disjointed in places. However, MSC's second best is better than most other people's really really best, so you're in safe hands.

At page 160, however, (which is, admittedly, a bit late) things take off. The author comes up with a quite brilliant solution to the problem of how to describe what goes on in the head of a man whose brain is bleeding. Not only that, but he simultaneously manages to provide us with some vital info on Renko's backstory -- and, furthermore, he produces something which is beautiful and moving and deeply evocative of time and place. (Beat that, you literary lot.)

MSC also, by the way, has a sense of humour. Any author who can make you laugh when his main man gets shot in the head is indeed a bit special. In fact, all the way through this book, we are continually reminded that being shot and garroted really hurts and does you no good at all. Mr Renko is not allocated those same miraculous powers of recovery from injury which are so often the prerogative of fictional heroes.

Finally, for them as wants more than just a story (pernickety, ungrateful, demanding buggers that they are), MSC provides that as well. For this is a story about the influence of Stalin on the Russian mentality. This is a theme previously tackled by Robert Harris, in his Archangel -- a book which I found much less convincing than this one.

I have never actually been to Russia, but it would, by my reading of European history, be most unwise to underestimate the strength and talent of that nation. Everyone seems to think that the twenty-first century is going to belong to China. But if I were a betting man I would back the Russians.

Peter Bevelin: Seeking Wisdom

I thought I'd reviewed this book a while back, but a quick google suggests that I evidently forgot to. Anyway, this is another non-fiction book, with the subtitle 'From Darwin to Munger'. And who Munger, you may reasonably be asking. The answer is that Charles Munger is Warren Buffet's sidekick; and Buffet is perhaps capitalism's most successful investor.

All of that being the case, you will understand that much of the discussion about seeking wisdom is couched in terms of finance, as are many of the examples quoted. Darwin also appears in the subtitle, however, and he is there because he is regarded by the author as providing a wonderful lesson in objectivity.

Peter Bevelin makes it clear, early on in his introduction, that the ideas in his book are built largely from the works and thoughts of others. 'I have condensed,' he says, 'what others have written in a usable form and added my own conclusions.'

Once again, in a short review, I am obliged to seek to summarise, with all the attendant dangers, but it seems to me that this book is largely about cultivating good judgement. The author admires clarity of thought, and so do I. To achieve such clarity, he recommends stripping out as much emotion from the decision-making process as possible; and again that seems to me to be sensible. It is a course of action which I have many times recommended in relation to writing and publishing issues, where, all too often, emotion dominates considerations to the point where it obliterates all traces of common sense.

By way of example, the author lists, as one of the causes of misjudgements and mistakes, 'Believing [that] one can control the outcome of events where chance is involved.' Readers of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile will not be surprised to hear that I endorse that.

The author also has no illusions about the forecasting ability of economists. He quotes Peter Lynch as follows: 'There are 60,000 economists in the US, many of them employed full-time trying to forecast recessions and interest rates, and if they could do it successfully twice in a row, they'd all be millionaires by now.' Quite so.

This is a well written and well organised book, with nice short paragraphs, and it certainly goes a long way towards providing the wisdom which features in its title. Particularly recommended for students on business studies courses.

This book is published by PCA Publications and is now in its third edition.

Chris Anderson: The Long Tail

The Long Tail has been out a while now. It was first published a year ago, and before that was available in draft online; many readers' comments on that draft (and it attracted up to 5,000 readers a day) were incorporated into the first edition; a revised edition is due out next year.

The subtitle of this book is 'How endless choice is creating unlimited demand', which is all very well but perhaps not as informative as it might be. What the book is really about, it seems to me, is how the internet has changed the way in which firms can do business -- and, more importantly for most of us, it is about how the economics of online trading mean that you and I get to choose from an enormously greater range of product than was the case in the past, and is still the case if we go to a high-street retailer.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book, so far as readers of this blog are concerned, is that the internet is transforming the chances of success (however defined) for self-published writers and for small publishers. Which is not -- definitely not -- to say that small presses and unknown writers can now compete with the big boys on equal terms. The difference is that now the internet plus changes in printing technology mean that the minnows at least get to appear in print, if nothing else.

All in all, The Long Tail is essential reading if you hope to understand how the world is developing in the twenty-first century.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The art of saying no

Several other blogs have mentioned a recent article in the New York Times, but it was not until tipped off by Jon Jermey (an Aussie indexer -- thanks Jon) that I actually went and looked at it. It turns out to be a lot of fun.

It seems that the ancient (by US standards) and honourable publishing firm of Knopf have lodged their archives in the University of Texas, and Professor Oshinsky has been reading through them.

Among the gems he has unearthed are the rejection letters sent to many a famous name, in respect of many books which later went on to become famous. Among the works which Knopf did not want to know about were The Diary of Anne Frank and Lolita.

This is all very entertaining, and will, of course, provide further ammunition to those of the 'all publishers are completely clueless' persuasion. As the years pass, however, I grow more sympathetic with the poor bastards who make fifty decisions a day about piles of manuscript, only to find, fifty years later, that some smart-arse, full of the benefit of hindsight, is sniggering at them.

I am particularly sympathetic to the Knopfs (Alfred and Blanche) because they were at least conscious that, in a commercial publishing company, there is no getting away from the fact that commerce is the key.

For instance, Harold Strauss, editor in chief, once wrote to a distinguished historian as follows: 'I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that, while we recognize the scholarly merits of the manuscript, we are deeply disappointed in its trade possibilities. We feel that you have completely missed your chance to write a colorful and dramatic book.'

The NYT article does not, however, include my favourite story about the house of Knopf. It appears (if my aged memory is still functioning correctly), in the autobiography of the English literary agent George Greenfield. The story was in all probability based on fact, but, like all good stories, it may have been embroidered somewhat over the years.

It is said that for some time the firm of Knopf had been keen to get its hands on the American rights of the novels by the very successful English writer, John Buchan. So keen, in fact, that Blanche Knopf is said to have gone down on her knees in front of Mr Buchan, and said, with intense feeling: 'Mr Buchan -- will you put your American end into my hands?'

Thursday, September 13, 2007

This that and the other

Cory Doctorow is usually a source of good sense, and in Locus magazine he has an article about the virtues of giving away books online. It's not the first time he has argued this case, and he assembles such quantitative data as are available on this issue.

Hmm. This one will run and run, I think.

Publishers Lunch refers to a row rumbling in academe. The University of Michigan Press reportedly acts as distributor for the UK's Pluto Press. One book put out under this arrangement is Overcoming Zionism, by Joel Kovel. And it turns out that some 'members of the university community' have 'serious questions' about the book. Which means, in effect, they want to ban it, and, if they had their druthers, burn the entire stock and preferably pop the author on top of it.

Ah me. If this wasn't so funny it would be tragic. And vice versa.

Later. Seems that the U of M has decided, grudgingly, to resume distribution of the book in question. For one thing, their contract requires it. But the authorities in question can hardly be said to have covered themselves in glory on this one. They end up, frankly, looking like a bunch of ignorant deadbeats. Do they know nothing about the concept of free speech in universities? Not to mention the first amendment.

Publishers Lunch also highlights another classic example of twisting and squirming. An Oregon newspaper wonders whether it really should have mentioned a reporter's book in quite the way it did.

But I thought that was the whole point of working for a newspaper. If you can't depend on your employer to give you a bloody good plug when the book comes out, what's the point? You might as well be a schoolteacher.

The Tonto Press blog prints some correspondence which constitutes an absolutely classic example of how not to approach a publisher. I think the Press is a bit too kind to the sender of this nonsense, frankly. I think we should be told his name.

Blogging By and About Authors is part of the CyberBookBuzz range of services. It comes up with some interesting stuff, for instance this review of a book about clearing permissions -- something of a nightmare.

Did you know, for instance, that many old TV series cannot be sold on DVD because the task of getting permission to use the background music in the new format is just too complicated and difficult? I read it on the internet, so it must be true.

* provides a link to an article on the web site of the Institute for the Future of the Book. This is an exceptionally interesting, if speculative, piece on ebook readers, the future role of publishers, and all like that.

Suppose -- just suppose -- that instead of the endless conglomeration and concentration of power into ever fewer and fewer hands, which has been the story of the last few years, we get instead a vast distribution of authority, a garden in which a million flowers flourish. Wouldn't that be fun?

Along the way a point is made which was made here a while back, namely that readers neither know nor care much about publishers. Authors, they remember; book titles they remember too. But publishers? Nah. Not interested.

I recently mentioned a new book on why we read what we read, by Lisa Adams and John Heath. Now they have started a blog on the same subject. They seek to 'analyze culture through bestsellers'. And the best of luck to them. (Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Vivek's iUniverse-published non-fiction book, Lies, Lies, and More Lies, is a defence of Hindu nationalism. Whatever else may be said about the book, it is pretty clear that it is well written. Take a look at the lengthy info on

The 20th Independent and Small Press Book Fair will take place on Saturday, December 1 (between 10am and 6pm) and Sunday, December 2 (between 11am and 5pm) at the New York Center of Independent Publishing, 20 West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, in Manhattan. More detail here.

Further to my post about the Souvenir Press, Mr Hecht tells me that actually The Cooler sold well, and in lots of countries, and the author did two more books for Souvenir in similar style. These had 'really astronomical earnings' before Markstein was enticed by the Bodley Head, and then by Pan, and lastly Hodders; but he never touched the same earnings in those places and died at a comparatively young age.

Which just goes to show. Stick with the guys who treated you right in the first place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ernest Hecht and the Souvenir Press

In 1951, Ernest Hecht set up an independent UK publishing company called the Souvenir Press. Today, he's still running it, in its 56th year of operation.

The Souvenir Press first came to my attention in 1974. In those days I was much younger and more naive than I am today, and I tended to believe what I read in the book-trade press. Hence, when I read in the Bookseller that an amazing new thriller was about to come out, I got a bit excited. I liked thrillers.

The book in question was The Cooler, by George Markstein. The author, Wikipedia tells me, was born in Germany but came to England as a child refugee. He was already a successful TV producer and scriptwriter. But I knew nothing of that at the time (and in 1974 there was no easy way to find out; you have no idea, you younger persons, what a difference the internet makes). All I knew was that the Bookseller went on for weeks and weeks about The Cooler, pointing out how the film rights had been sold for a vast sum, paperback rights for ditto, advance orders huge, and so forth. The author, it was said, had made a quarter of a million pounds even before publication.

Now all this, you will readily understand, was pure hype and flim-flam. You and I can recognise that sort of thing now, because we've seen so much of it. But at the time I believed every word. (I told you I was naive.)

When the book came out, I read it eagerly. And, er, guess what -- it wasn't really all that good. Not a patch on Ian Fleming.

I sat there scratching my head and wondering what I was missing. So I was not only naive, I was a bit thick as well.

Eventually, of course, some vague apprehension of what was going on here gradually sank in. I don't believe that a film version of the book was ever made (the 2003 movie of that name seems unconnected), and I doubt that the book was a huge seller either. But I did remember the name of the Souvenir Press and its publisher, Ernest Hecht.

Over the years Mr Hecht has published a slightly weird and eclectic list. This reflects something of his character, which was briefly described by Nicholas Clee, in the Times last year. Hecht has, in his time, published quite a lot of fiction, including, for example, both the Modesty Blaise series (commercial) and Knut Hamsun (Norwegian Nobel prize winner). Today, however, he publishes very little fiction 'because of the marketing difficulties with the chains'.

Despite the difficulties, every so often Hecht does re-issue a novel which he believes has been overlooked. In 2002, for example, he chose Address Unknown, by Kressman Taylor, which is now on its fifth printing. This dates from 1938, and is a very short but powerful expose of Nazi Germany. In 2003 the choice was In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, by Delmore Schwartz; the author was, it seems, the model for Saul Bellow's Mr Herzog.

Last year, the Souvenir Press re-issued two novels which the firm had originally published in 1983, by then young and unknown writers: If I Should die Before I Wake, by Michelle Morris, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen (recently filmed starring Brad Pitt).

One of the firm's latest re-issues is The Marvellous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca, by Haniel Long. This was originally published in 1939, and the first Souvenir Press edition was in 1972. This novella has been described as 'a spiritual classic as powerful as Khalil Gibran's The Prophet' (Gibran is an author whom Hecht also published, by the way).

A glance at the Souvenir Press catalogue reveals, however, that the firm does not just put out the best of the past. New books include a history of chess, a guide to dog training, and a study of obituaries.

I would like to be able to point you at the Souvenir Press web site, so that you can explore more at your leisure. But I find, not altogether to my surprise, that the firm doesn't have one.

As an alternative, go to, and search by publisher. With a bit of luck, this link might do the job for you, and you'll find a list of over 2000 books.

Long live the Souvenir Press and its distinguished and indefatigable publisher.

Monday, September 10, 2007

More accumulated stuff

There's a book out which is an anthology of material from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (recommended by Jessa Crispin at Bookslut). Should be good. It's the world's best title for a magazine, anyway.

Bet you don't know where the title comes from, do you? No, thought not. I think I did know once, but I've forgotten.

Cyberbook Buzz will publicise your book on the web. For a fee.

Lynn Lurie's Corner of the Dead is a novel, but an unusual one. Set in Peru, it is told from the perspective of a witness. More on the web site, including an extract.

Don't miss the latest Jimston Journal, just out and free online. There are quite a few things in it which you will have heard of before if you're a regular reader of this blog. There's some of Mr Losovsky's Doorbells, a bit of Mr Fenman, and some Gladys. If you can't find anything to interest you there, then I give up.

Here is a cultural announcement of considerable significance:

After the limited print-run of only 52 sold out last week, the forward-thinking publishing house Upside-Down-Then-Backwards is offering readers the opportunity to download Jean-Pierre Sertin’s experimental novel 'p.52' for free. This unique work contains 52 pages, each of them representing p.52 of 52 non-existent works. Hard to follow? Fortunately, Sertin has written an introduction in which he explores at length the process through which the novel was created. The full work can be found here.

As you may or may not know, Sertin is the co-creator of the literary form of ‘Intercuttings’ - various examples of which can also be found at Underneath the Bunker – the online home of Europe’s Premier Cultural Journal (as well as many other things).

May the treacle of culture continue to drip upon your faces.

Abebooks is celebrating the 50th anniversary of On the Road. That book never quite worked for me, but then I am English.

Worried about book coverage in newspapers? Then you must read Steve Wasserman's long article in the Columbia Journalism Review. (Link from Publishers Lunch.) Wasserman also has things to say about the conglomeration and digitisation of the book business, and changes in the culture of literacy. The author was formerly head of the Los Angeles Times's book-review section.

Mr Mahfouz gets his name in the Washington Times. And serve him right. (Link from Lori at Bonusbooks.

If you've been following the Sheikh Mahfouz story, you may wish to know that Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil, is the director of the American Center for Democracy, which is a good place to go for news and information about this and similar issues.

John Heath and Lisa Adams have written a book about popular and bestselling books (Why We Read What We Read), and what such books tell us about their readers and the society we live in. If you like radio, you can hear the authors being interviewed by Steve Roberts. I'd like to say that you can also read a free transcript of the interview, but you can't. (Link from Dave Lull.)

To get a quicker flavour of this book, you might do better to read a good review.

Not that you and I care, of course, because we are much too grand for that kind of thing, but self-publishing services provider AuthorHouse has taken over the similar outfit iUniverse. You can read all about it in the press release (link from Publishers Lunch).

It seems that the guys who runs these businesses see no chance that people are going to stop writing books; neither do they see any likely diminution in the desire to see the books in print. What's more, they're going to open up a new competitor for, called Wordclay.

P. Viktor is an Englishman who once worked for Oxford University Press. Now he has a novel out (via Lulu). Its title is Veneer, and you can read the first three chapters online.

Abebooks are running an auction of 14 signed books, published by Penguin. Proceeds to English PEN, which, I am sorry to say, is not my favourite charity.

Redstone Press is an odd business, even by publishers' standards, but very professional despite its oddity. Go take a look. I can find no word about who runs it, but many of the books are by the artist David Shrigley, so perhaps he has a hand in it somewhere. The name Rothenstein also crops up regularly.

Charles Hugh Smith offers aspiring writers what he claims is the worst advice they'll ever read. Actually, most of it is quite sound. (Link from Jon.)

Reading Charles's stuff, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is a complete failure as a writer, but actually, if you explore his web site further, you will see that that is far from the case. He has written quite a lot of journalism. He's also had a novel (I-State Lines) published by the Permanent Press, an outfit which says that it receives 6,000 submissions a year and publishes 12 of them.

Back in August, I mentioned a novel by Wesley Carrington Greayer. In earlier life, Wes flew in a world-war II bomber crew. Now he has started a blog, on which he is posting some of the thoughts he has had about that experience.

For many years Wes's WWII memorabilia were locked away in a box in the attic; his memories and emotions from that period likewise. Now, while he still can, Wes is putting some of it on to paper, and into circulation. Well worth reading.

Everybody of any age has a story, I guess, and the men who fought in WWII have darker stories to tell than most. I met such a man recently, and quite unexpectedly he told me how much he was troubled, even now, by the memories of his appalling experiences in those days. I hope it helped for him to talk. All I could do to help was recommend that he read Marcus Aurelius.

Last Saturday's Financial Times provided an amazing experience, possibly unique in recent UK newspaper history. It contained, so far as I could see, not a single word about the McCann family. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, my advice is: stay ignorant.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Accumulated stuff

Maud Newton very sensibly highlights the importance of Edmund Wilson highlighting the importance of Edgar Allan Poe and his theories of literature. Those theories have, by the way, been mentioned here, with approval, more than once: for example, on 2 June 2004.

The Oldie carries an advert for I thought the name Guy N. Smith was familiar, and having checked out the web site I now know why. It's because he's the author of over 100 books, most of them in thoroughly commercial fiction genres. You can find details of the man's career here.

Ever since giving up a life as a bank manager, Guy has been writing and selling books. He runs a secondhand book business and a small publishing company, in addition to keeping up with his writing. He is also the UK's pipe-smoking champion.

Madame Arcati reminds me that there is to be a Desmond Elliott prize for a first novel. The enterprise has its own web site where you can read all about it. UK publications only, I fear.

Desmond Elliott was quite a character, as the splendid profile by Liz Thomson makes clear (she also seems to have written the Times obituary). But there's something which irks me about this proposed prize. Elliott was a man who agented or published the likes of Jilly Cooper, Penny Vicenzi, Derek Lambert, Leslie Thomas, Richard Doyle, and Claire Rayner.

I particularly remember Richard Doyle (though you won't) because he wrote an adventure novel called Imperial 109 which Elliott sold to the Americans for (if memory serves) $800,000 in 1977, when that was still quite a serious amount of money. As an ambitious writer myself at the time, I tended to notice that kind of thing.

All of the above-mentioned writers are pretty solidly commercial, you will note, and pretty successful too, under Elliot's guidance. But now that a prize is being offered in his name, it is suggested that likely winners from the past might have included such novels as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Beach, White Teeth, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, The Thirteenth Tale, Brick Lane, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Tenderness of Wolves.

Well, sorry, but I sense a certain disjunction here. I don't think it makes much sense to associate the name of a man who represented Jilly Cooper with the likes of some of those. A touch of the O. Henrys all over again.

Essential reading if you care at all about science and progress is an article by Professor William Neal Reynolds in the Financial Times. (Link from the Creative Commons blog.)

Reynolds discusses the online availability, or otherwise, of the reports of scientific research which is funded by the public purse. He draws attention, not unreasonably, to the greed -- sorry, profit-making instincts -- of the commercial publishers of learned journals. More importantly, however, he highlights the irony of the fact that the world wide web is not being fully exploited by the scientific community.

The web was invented by a scientist as an aid to scientific communication. 'In every other area of life,' Reynolds points out, 'commerce, social networking, pornography - it has been a smashing success. But in the world of science itself? With the virtues of an open web all around us, we have proceeded to build an endless set of walled gardens, something that looks a lot like Compuserv or Minitel and very little like a world wide web for science.'

Similar issues were discussed here a few weeks ago in relation to the Martin Rundkvist-edited collection of papers on scholarly journals.

Publishers Lunch tells me that Deirdre Knight of the Knight Agency has just sold an erotic novella by Joey W. Hill to Berkley Heat. It turns out, on investigation, that Joey is one of those highly productive pulp-type authors who produce at a prodigious rate. Pulp-type, by the way, carries no pejorative overtones at all; quite the reverse.

And Joey is a she, also by the way.

The same agent has also sold another (similar) erotic novella to Berkley Heat, this time by Jaci Burton. And guess what -- Jaci is productive too. Also she.

Ansible 242 explains that, in the eyes of any halfway educated science-fiction fan, Jeanette Winterson is making a fool of herself with her latest novels and pronouncements upon same. Pity. Seems like a nice girl. Literary people never seem to learn that you can't just dash off a novel which attempts to use genre conventions without having spent a good many years acquainting yourself with those conventions.

You know what the Booker prize reminds me of? Football.

In England, football (with the round ball; David Beckham-type game) is immensely popular, and it occupies acres of newsprint. Even the Times has a weekly supplement devoted to it. And the characters and the background stories are really quite interesting. It's just that the game itself is absolutely unwatchable. Nothing happens for hours at a time, and when it does it's childish play-acting and cheating.

Same with the Booker. The personalities and the gossip and the bookies' odds are not without interest, and the Bookseller provides as good a summary as any. But the books... Nah, forget 'em.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Anyone for royalties?

Last Saturday's post was not headed Pre-holiday clearance for nothing: Mrs GOB and I are having various days off and out this week, so posts may be sparse to non-existent.

However, there is plenty for you to ponder in the meantime.

I did give a mention last Saturday to Richard Charkin's provocative prod into the body politic, with his proposal that the old (alleged) royalty system should be abandoned as a means of recompensing authors for their efforts.

I say alleged royalty system because in practice the author's advance is often all they get, and royalties are more theoretical than actual, and in any case the calculations are so bloody complicated that no one can understand them half the time, and certainly no one other than a chartered accountant with three weeks to spare and unlimited access to the company books could possibly know whether the calculations on the six-monthly statement are right or wrong, and -- Pause for breath.

If you go read Mr Charkin's prod today, you will see that, predictably, it has attracted some comment. What I would not have predicted, perhaps, is the high quality of the thinking that is demonstrated in these comments. You need to be fairly well versed in existing practice in order to follow it all. But, if you're a writer, or intending to become one, and you are interested in the money, then by golly you'd better get to grips with it.

One further essential port of call, in your search for enlightenment, is the OUP blog, where Evan Schnittman has some specific proposals to offer. These are not official OUP policy, but are part of the continuing discussion in that office.

Whichever way you look at it, the business side of publishing is an area (if I may mix my metaphors) which needs seizing by the throat and shaking hard. It's a mess. A hopeless jumble and jungle of impenetrable past practice, special deals, returns, and god knows what else.

Mercifully, it ain't really my problem. Not these days.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pre-holiday clearance

The Guardian recently carried an article by Scott Rosenberg, a co-founder of and author of Dreaming in Code. He blogs at

Scott's subject was blogging, and he views it from something like a ten-year perspective. This is worth reading if you're thinking of starting a blog, or if you're already writing one and sometimes wonder why you're doing it.

My favourite quote from the article: 'Blogs have realised [i.e. made a reality] that old wisecracking twist on an Andy Warhol aphorism: that, someday, everyone will be famous for 15 people'.

On his own blog, in a post dated 29 August, Scott reflects on his Guardian piece and adds some further notes on correcting what appears in the first draft.

Chandler McGrew is a writer of hard-edged supernatural/suspense thrillers which are -- according to more reviewers than most of us get in a lifetime -- in the Dean Koontz tradition. This is not a sub-genre that I deal in much myself, but Mr McGrew and I occupy the same position in the literature versus commercial fiction argument. As his recent blog post testifies.

It has often been argued here that the greatest problem that writers face today is obscurity -- being lost like a piece of flotsam in the vast flood of publications. Compared with this problem, the risk of piracy is negligible. If only we could write something that people would think worth stealing!

All of that being the case, I have often published the full text of some of my novels online, in the form of pdf files; and indeed I would put all my stuff online but for the fact that it takes time, some of it is not available in digital form, et cetera.

Well, here's another supporter of the same point of view. His name is Jon Evans, and he's an established novelist. His third novel, a thriller called Invisible Armies, was recently published by Hodder & Stoughton. Now Jon is publishing a new novel as an online freebie in serial form.

The book is entitled Beasts of New York. It is very different from his thrillers: it's an urban fantasy about the animals of New York City, with a squirrel protagonist. Jon calls it a 'children's book for adults.' See the book's FAQ for details, including more on why he's doing this.

Jon also has an article on the question of obscurity versus piracy, and other related issues, in this month's issue of Canada's news magazine The Walrus.

The UK's Oldie magazine, aimed at the grumpy old people in the UK (a big market), has issued a books supplement with this month's copy. This is evidently to be a quarterly affair.

Well, everyone seems to be worried about the diminishing amount of space which newspapers and magazines devote to books, but personally I'm surprised that they give books as much space as they do. There are other things in life, you know.

Pick that man up and take him outside for some fresh air. He's only pretending to be shocked.

One or two readers have recently commented on the fact that my novels and other books are published under a variety of pen-names. This is true, and for a variety of reasons.

All my recent stuff (since 2000) is published through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications. And even a few years ago, it was clear that self-publishing under one's own name was not a smart move. So that's one reason why I used such names as Patrick Read and Anne Moore.

The other reason is that I write books which are in somewhat different styles, and certainly in widely differing genres. And I thought, at the time, that it might help readers if I 'branded' them in some way.

I now think that I was probably wrong on all counts. I don't think anyone with any brains automatically dismisses self-published books any longer. Such books are just as (well, almost as) likely to be taken seriously as any other kind.

As for branding, that didn't work either. An editor in a mainstream publishing house remarked to me, a couple of years ago, that my three 'Anne Moore' books are, in fact, so different, that no editor in her position could publish them as a package by one author. It would be 'too confusing' for the reader.

So if I was publishing those books today, I would put my own name on all of them, and the hell with it. The descriptions make it pretty clear, I think, what is on offer in each case, even though they do differ widely and sometimes wildly.

As far as young and wannabe writers are concerned, please be aware that my example is not one which you should follow if you want to have some sort of 'career' in mainstream publishing. Definitely not. The way to success is to identify the genre in which you are most likely to succeed, pick a clearly defined sub-genre in that overall genre, and write a series of books which are, effectively, the same book each time, but with enough variation to hold the reader's attention.

Good examples: Agatha Christie (who grew bored with repeating herself and occasionally wrote books as Mary Westmacott, just for a change), and P.G. Wodehouse.

In my own case I grew bored with that same-novel-every-time game fairly early on, and decided that if I couldn't have fun I wasn't going to bother. Hence the absence of worldly success. But I had a good time writing them though.

Oh dear, you have to laugh, don't you? Well I do, anyway.

A couple of times in the recent past we have noted the attempts by Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz to silence the criticism of himself which was contained in a book published by Cambridge University Press. He did this by suing CUP for libel through the UK courts; the English libel laws permit, in effect, a form of libel tourism.

In my last discussion of this, on 16 August, I suggested that anyone who abuses the English laws on a grand scale, too many times, eventually achieves precisely the opposite effect to that which is intended: a circumstance which I find greatly entertaining.

The most recent discussion of all this is to be found in the 29 August edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The article repeats much of the known facts, and then describes some of the 'opposite effects' which I mentioned last time.

Link from Lori at Bonusbooks, who has a keen eye for this kind of thing.

Richard Charkin, head man at Macmillan, has, as ever, some sensible things to say about rationalising the present royalty system.

I think that his proposals (not new) are sensible, but I want to make a comment from the writer's point of view.

Big publishers -- and most small ones too -- are in the business of making money. Hence they constantly try to economise on costs. And one of their major costs is payments to authors, in the form of advances and royalties. In any reform of the royalty system, it will be a major objective of publishers to try to reduce, in total, the proportion of their income which is passed on to authors. Equally, in discussion of such reform, it will be the objective of literary agents and the Society of Authors (in the UK) to ensure that writers do not end up being paid less than they were under the old system.

So that's one good reason why writers and agents may not be too keen on the Charkin suggestion. Which at present is little more than a provocative prod into the body politic to see what happens.

For a full (very full) discussion of payments to authors, please see my discussion of Advances, published here in June 2005. It comes in three parts, which are, unsurprisingly, part one, part two, and part three. But do be aware that these are not short posts. To absorb them fully, I would guess that at least half an hour is required.

Duncan Fallowell, writing on Madame Arcati's blog, says that Richard Booth has sold his Hay-on-Wye book business, but has kept control of the castle.

If you have no idea what all this means, read my description of Hay-on-Wye (centre of the used-book universe) from 26 September 2005.

Virtually every newspaper in England has published a report about books that people leave behind in hotel rooms. Here's a typical example from the Daily Mail.

The report was compiled by the Travelodge chain, and it tells us that the book most often left behind this summer was The Blair Years, which is an edited diary written by the former press secretary of our beloved (and much missed) leader, T. Blair, Esq.

I wouldn't normally bother you with such tedious nonsense, but I think it's worth pointing out that here we have yet another example of the fertile imagination of the p.r. persons of this world.

Personally I do not believe for an instant that this alleged survey ever took place at all (despite what it says in the press release). I think this was made up, from start to finish, with Campbell's book being chosen for the number-one spot because it was the book thought most likely to catch the eye of news editors, most of whom have rather mixed feelings about A. Campbell.

Some hard-pressed p.r. person, under orders to get the Travelodge name some publicity or else, sat there sucking his pen and thinking, Hmm. August is a quiet month. What can we do about the things that people leave behind them? Let's see now. Vibrators, of course. Handcuffs. Nah, a bit too risque. Clothes? Who cares?

And then, bingo. Books! Campbell! Result, hundreds of column inches.

Your job, as a writer: think of ways to manoeuvre yourself into topping the poll in a similar sort of story.

Finally today, something which outshines all the others.

In early life, Lucilla Andrews was a nurse. She saw plenty of service during the 1939-45 war, and she wrote a memoir of those difficult few years: No Time for Romance.

Later on, Lucilla became a famous romantic novelist, and last year the UK Romantic Novelists' Association gave a special lunch to honour her, together with two other venerable members of that association.

No Time for Romance was one of the books used by Ian McEwan when he was doing research for Atonement, and the Financial Times magazine today has both an article about Lucilla and an extract from her memoir.

I recommend that you read the extract (scroll down) if nothing else.