Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Jeffrey Archer gets beaten up

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I'm actually in danger of feeling sorry for Jeffrey Archer. Why? Because he just got beaten up in the Sunday Times.

Of course, now that I come to think about it, I realise that there may well be lots of readers who have no idea who Jeffrey Archer is. He is almost exactly my age, and so I have been reading about him for decades, but there are those who know nothing. Lucky, one might say, them. But here is a quick summary.

Jeffrey Archer is an Englishman who, early in life, began to make his mark on the world. In fact 'make' is the operative word there. 'Man on the make' is a phrase which might reasonably describe him.

At the early age of 29 he became a Member of Parliament. Then, when he thought he might be made bankrupt, he resigned and took to writing commercial fiction instead. He proved to be remarkably good at it, and over the years he has sold a great many books in both the UK and the USA. He went back into political life and ended up with a life peerage from Mrs Thatcher -- i.e. he is a member of the House of Lords and is known formally as Lord Archer. A success then?

Well, sort of. At every stage of his career, Archer has been criticised for taking shot cuts, and for being, shall we say, not entirely honest and trustworthy. Scandals occur at regular intervals -- scandals legal, sexual, financial -- none of them appearing to diminish Jeffrey's self-confidence or bounce. However, in 2001 his luck finally ran out. He was convicted of perjury and was sentenced to four years in the slammer. As usual, he got out in two. And he went right back to doing what he does best, namely talking his way out of trouble and writing books.

Now he has a new novel out. It's called False Impressions. Last week the Sunday Times carried an interview with Lord Archer, said interview being conducted by another politician/novelist, Roy Hattersley. The headline stated that Archer 'still can't sort fact from fiction'. And this week False Impressions was reviewed by Tom Deveson.

I don't know who Deveson is, but he's a careful reader and he doesn't like cliches. He has been through Archer's new book and listed every cliche, every repetition, every banal thought, and so forth. And has set them out before us. Archer gets mugged. Knocked down, kicked in the balls, stamped on, spat on, vilified.

I imagine that every word of the review is fully justified, from a certain point of view. And I'm not an Archer fan. But his previous work (whoever wrote it, and there have been stories) has always struck me as being above average of its kind. Its kind being airport books. You buy one in New York, read bits of it with some amusement and interest on the plane, and then chuck it in the bin at Heathrow.

I am not at all sure, frankly, that if I was introduced to Jeffrey Archer I would be willing to shake his hand. Because I regard him in many ways as a total creep. But I do think the review is a little bit harsh. And it surely misses the point.

Commercial fiction is intended to sell lots of copies. And you don't sell lots of copies by aiming your book at the top 1% of the cultural UK elite. You aim it at a reader with an IQ of, say, 110. People with an IQ of less than 100 probably don't read books anyway, so aiming your masterwork at 100 IQ or lower is probably counter-productive, and a target of 110, plus or minus 10, is, I suggest, somewhere about right.

What do such readers want? Well, if we knew that, precisely, and could bottle it, we would all be rich and famous. But my best guess is that they want a story. One that moves along at a fair old pace, does not confuse the reader with fancy flourishes, and has a satisfactory ending.

Tom Deveson, in reviewing False Impressions, lists a whole succession of features of the book which are, to him, unacceptably crude and simplistic. The use of cliches; cardboard characters (as he would say). Repetitions. Unrealistic dialogue. And so forth.

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful ennvironment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

And so on.

Jeffrey Archer is a man who has made numerous enemies, in several different fields of activity, and mostly with every justification. But if we are going to kick him up the arse, we ought to do so for the right reasons.

Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing fiction

I have the feeling that a number of bloggers have commented on the Elmore Leonard essay about the rules for writing. But my eye, somehow, kind of slid over the references (which is a comment on other people's writing in itself). However, it was Diane Duane who finally enticed me to go take a look. And, if you're into writing fiction, I advise you to do the same.

Elmore Leonard, who he? Oh, he's just some boring old commercial writer. Writes thrillers and stuff. Kissy kissy bang bang, and not too much of the kissy kissy. Been selling for fifty years, but only to those unspeakably vulgar types who like stories, and couldn't care less about the quality of your metaphors. What does he know, compared with the professors on your MFA course?

Sixteen ways to think about Web 2.0

Now I am not a remotely techie person. But even out here in darkest Wiltshire, I do occasionally hear murmurings of something called Web 2.0. And if, like me, you occasionally wonder what Web 2.0 is, you may be reassured to know that even those in the know, so to speak, are a bit vague.

For a starting point, see Dion Hinchcliffe's review of last year's best explanations. And here, lifted from that source, is a definition which is lifted, in turn, from Tim O'Reilly.
Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an "architecture of participation," and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.
In other words, it's a techie thing, and you and I don't really understand it. However, it clearly has to do with the internet as it now exists, and as it is developing, and with the growth of new digital ways of doing things. And it has to do with co-operation; and, it would appear, openness and a lack of anally retentive secrecy.

And there are, it seems, lots of people in the world who are thinking about Web 2.0 and what it all means. Though very few of them, as we have often observed, are in the book world.

One such thinker is the afore-mentioned Dion Hinchcliffe, and the Creative Commons blog recently, and rightly, highlighted his essay entitled Thinking in Web 2.0: Sixteen Ways. Of these sixteen thoughts, number five is, I suspect, the one most relevant to you and me. Here it is:
Be prepared to share everything with enthusiasm. Share everything possible, every piece of data you have, every service you offer. Encourage unintended uses, bend over backward to contribute, don't keep anything private that doesn't absolutely have to be. Go beyond sharing and make discovery, navigation easy, obvious, and straightforward. Why: In return, you will benefit many times over from the sharing of others. Note: This is not a license to violate copyright laws, you will not be able to share your ripped DVDs or commercial music recordings, those are things you agreed you can't share. But you might find yourself using and sharing a lot more open source media. And for heaven's sake, learn the Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Now you © it, soon you won’t

Now you © it, soon you won’t is the title of an article in last Saturday's Times. Under the title, the sub-heading reads 'The laws of copyright are being rendered meaningless by the growth of digital technology. So how will writers and artists earn a crust?' The writer is Jamie King.

One's heart sinks a bit, because at first sight this looks like just another ain't-it-awful complaint about Google, Napster and all like that. Another superficial, beginners-start-here piece, of the kind which, sadly, one has come to expect, even in the Times. But, mercifully, it isn't like that at all.

The article turns out to be entirely realistic, entirely reasonable, and unusually well informed. Jamie King is described, at the end of the article, as 'a writer and activist in the field of intellectual property.' The thrust of his article is that the availability of the internet, plus digital copies of works of art (not just books), means that in five years' time (give or take a bit) there may no longer be any reason to pay for a book, a film, or a piece of music, other than a conscious desire to remunerate the creators -- a desire which, he suggests, is simply not going to be strong enough in most cases. Most people will just take the music track/book and say thank you nicely, but that's about it. Digital rights management systems? King seems to consider them doomed (as do I, and I don't even know anything about them).

Unlike most people who pontificate about this subject, King then goes on to ask some fairly obvious questions, few of which seem to be being addressed anywhere. Questions such as: if paying for a 'work of art' (for want of a better term) will be largely voluntary, how are writers (in particular) going to get paid? If the old model ceases to work, what new, and equally effective, model is going to be put in its place?

King emphasises that 'rethinking copyright does not commit one to a "pro-piracy/anti-artist" position. On the contrary, the question of remuneration is foremost in the minds of many of those working creatively around copyright... If it could be shown that we could do things differently -- sustain cultural production while allowing freer access to work -- what would be the argument not do so so?'

Good question. Of course one argument not to do so -- from a certain point of view -- would be that it would upset a lot of powerful people in publishing, who would have to start thinking in wholly new ways. And that, as is demonstrated daily, is a painful and difficult thing to do.

The Times article does not go into solutions to the conundrum which it describes. However, at a recent conference, Jamie King presented a paper which does put forward one possible solution, and the paper is available online. I have to say that I consider the solution which is offered to be hideously unattractive in principle and totally unworkable in practice. But at least the man is thinking, which most other people in publishing are not. Or, if they are, they are keeping mousy quiet about what it is that they are thinking.

Jamie King offers two web sites which will in due course be worth looking at if you're interested in the general subject of his article. One is the Pretext Project, which is (or will be) a publishing company dedicated to the free distribution of its texts. And the other is Banned Books. Neither site has anything to say for itself just yet, though both prove to have some powerful allies: the Arts Council, PEN, etc.

Sony Reader gets a pasting

Oh dear oh dear. Jeffrey S. Young is even less impressed by the Sony Reader than I was.

In an article posted on ZDNet, (link from ebookad.com) Jeffrey Young says that 'ever since the Trinitron and the Walkman, Japan's greatest consumer electronics business [i.e. Sony] has stumbled from one bad product to another.... The latest example of Sony's myopia is a soon-to-be-released combination of braindead technology meeting yesteryear's business model.'

It gets worse. 'Not content with having misplayed the digital music game completely, the company now hooks up with the one media industry that has totally screwed up in the digital age. Book publishing is still mired in the Gutenberg era and writers themselves are among the most reactionary netizens; efforts to introduce new Internet ideas like Google Print with full searchable text accompanied by book buying ads, get shot down by phalanxes of lawyers determined to protect the (unprofitable) status-quo.'

As I say. Oh dear. And this man is a writer himself.

Mind you, Sony's current chief executive is an Englishman (originally), Sir Howard Stringer. He and I were in the same house at school, and after leaving Oxford he has had an increasingly distinguished career. He moved to the USA, served in Vietnam, and became a US citizen. He is the first non-Japanese ever to be appointed to head a major Japanese company, and is generally thought to be a pretty good egg (it's the basic education that does it). As a result, Sony's fortunes will undoubtedly improve from here on in.

Diane Duane update

Many and wonderful are the ways in which writers seek to find audiences and, in the process, make a little money. Back in December, we noted the reading-on-the-instalment-plan schemes of Lawrence Evans and Diane Duane. Now, via Galleycat, we have a Diane Duane update.

Diane's position, if you recall, was that she had written two volumes of a fantasy trilogy. Vols I and II had been published by Warner. But then, when Diane naturally sent in an outline for Vol III, the publishers took a look at the sales figures to date and said no thanks.

Subsequently, Diane wrote other books which did rather better. So she began to wonder about writing Vol III and publishing it herself through a POD system. She invited readers to let her know whether they might be willing to cough up the $20 or $25 or so which she would have to charge for the book if she was to cover her labour and publishing expenses.

Well, over at Out of Ambit, Diane's big (and slow-loading if you're not on broadband) blog, you can find the results of the poll in a post called The Big Meow. It's a fairly long and complicated story, but essentially Diane is going to serialise the novel online -- at least as long as enough people keep paying for each chapter. Then, when the book is complete, she will publish a trade paperback edition through Lulu.com.

An update on the story has been posted since the main piece appeared -- there seem to be lots of keen readers -- and doubtless other updates will follow. She says that the amount of attention and support that this proposal is garnering is simply amazing.

For anyone who is an established writer, with a favourite project which hasn't found favour with a publisher, this is perhaps something to think about. But it's hardly a viable scheme, I fear, for anyone without an existing fan base.

Another factor to bear in mind is that Diane seems to be well clued up on how to handle html, databases, mailing lists, and the like. She also seems to be a lady of formidable energy. As she mentions on her blog, she also does cookery demonstrations.

I think I shall go and lie down and have a little rest.

Tao Lin: Bed

Tao Lin is a writer who has been mentioned here once or twice. And now, via Bookslut, we hear that Bed, his collection of short stories will be published by Melville House.

Tao Lin has his own blog, of course, and has things to say about the deal, as you would expect. It seems that he wants some negative blurbs to publicise the work. And you don't even have to read the book in order to declare, with absolute authority, that it is... Well, find your own choice of words.

Melville House is a relatively new publishing house. It is associated with a famous blog called Moby Lives, which tells its own story.

I see that one of the books on the Melville House list is entitled A Reader's Manifesto: an attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose. No shortage of source material for that one then.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Getting a little help -- or, Two heads are better than one

Galleycat reports a most intriguing story from the USA. Seems there was a very young (about 17) woman who had some demonstrable talent as a writer -- enough to impress agent Jennifer Rudolph-Walsh at William Morris -- but who didn't have what the agent refers to as a 'commercially viable' work. What she had was 'too dark'.

So, the agent put the young writer -- name of Kaavya Viswanathan -- in touch with an outfit called 17th Street Productions (aka, apparently, Alloy Entertainment), which is, according to Galleycat, a 'so-called book packager that specializes in developing projects in young-adult and middle-grade fiction.'

Result: Little Brown have offered the author, now aged 19, a sizable contract, rumoured at $500,000. Film rights are also sold. You can read an interview with the author in the Boston Globe. Oh, and it turns out that our heroine wrote the book in her spare time while taking a normal degree course at Harvard.

Now, although Galleycat seems a wee bit sniffy about all this, I have to say that this process seems to me to be one of the rare instances of writer, agent, and publisher acting rationally.

Here we have a young writer with enough sense to take some advice -- an unusual event in itself. Next we have an agent who recognises that her own main task is to sell stuff, not try to write it. And third we have a bunch of professional book packagers with a proven track record in creating material which actually sells.

The question that occurs to me is this. And it occurs because I live and work in the UK. Suppose you were a UK agent and you were in a similar position, having found a young writer with obvious talent but not yet in possession of a commercial manuscript. Where, I ask, is the UK equivalent of 17th Street Productions, or whatever they're called? I don't know, and I would genuinely like to know. Not because I have anyone to send to them, but as a matter of interest.

I rather suspect that the UK equivalent of 17th Street does not exist here. Yes, there are book packagers, certainly. But the UK market, I suspect, is too small to support the kind of mass-market paperback material which lends itself to production-line fiction.

And where in UK publishing, I wonder, are the super bright book doctors of the calibre of, say, Al Zuckerman in New York? I don't say they don't exist; I simply say that I've been keeping my eyes and ears open for a good long time now, and I don't know of any. Information gratefully received.

There's gold in them thar rights

The Literary Saloon has a lot to say about the proposed takeover of Chorion, the UK-based owner of rights in a number of famous literary estates, such as Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, and others.

What Chorion does, basically, is find ways to make more and more money out of the work of famous writers who have snuffed it. And what interests me is the arithmetic of the deal, and what that implies.

The offer to buy Chorion comes from Lord Alli, who has reportedly teamed up with private equity group 3i to finance the purchase price, which is £108 million. As one City analyst pointed out, the purchase price is 33.7 times 2006 earnings. Which can only mean that Alli thinks that even more money yet can be squeezed out of dear old Agatha and her mates. And it can only mean that he doesn't see any real problem about the copyrights expiring any time soon, or anything inconvenient like that. Nor does he see, presumably, any difficulty in controlling the exploitation of this material when it appears in digital form.

Well, Lord Alli is a likely lad, and he's currently chairman of Chorion, so he's in a position to know what the possibilities of the business are. In 1998, when he became a life peer, aged 34, he was the first openly gay man to be so appointed. The Times has a short profile of him.

Isn't it lucky that the likes of Lord Alli and 3i have all those future big earners scribbling away like mad? Not earning very much at present, of course, but all of them busy acquiring skills which will ensure that, fifty or a hundred years or so from now, long after the writers have lost interest, Chorion will still be in business.

Fishing for fun and profit

Speaking of competitions and prizes, as we were yesterday, Fish Publishing have just announced another round of offerings.

The launch of the Fish Short Histories Anthology, and the prize-giving for the winners of the Short Historical Fiction Prize, will be held in London on Sunday 5 March.

Fish also run a one-page short story competition, and this year's was due to close on 4 March. However, this has now been extended to the end of March.

Also closing at the end of March is this year's new competition, The Fish International Poetry Prize. The winning entries of this competition will be published alongside the winners of this year's Fish Short Story Prize, and the One-page Prize winning entries, in the 2006 Fish Anthology. (The top five winners also receive cash prizes.)

The Fish International Short Story Prize, mentioned immediately above, has a good reputation and is run on an annual basis. The winner of the 2005 competition will be announced shortly.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Muriel Spark: Aiding and Abetting

Muriel Spark is a sneaky old lady. There I was, going through Aiding and Abetting and thinking to myself, Oh dear, the old girl's a bit past it -- when all the time she'd been having me on. Leading me up the garden path.

The book, I thought, was turning out a bit dull and old-fashioned. And not terribly well focused. But then she suddenly ups and hits you with a few surprises. It's an experience rather like asking an awfully respectable old lady if she needs any help in crossing the road, only to be told Fuck off, sunshine, I can manage very well.

Muriel Spark was born in 1918, in Scotland, and Aiding and Abetting was published in 2000, so it was written when she was, lessee now, about 80. Crumbs. She could be excused if she was a bit over the hill. But she ain't.

Muriel Spark first came to public attention in the late 1950s. Memento Mori (1959) is the first of her titles that I remember anything about, and perhaps her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, came out in 1963. It was subsequently turned into a very successful stage play and later filmed.

The Spark career is a long and distinguished one, and it has been marked by several prizes and the award of a DBE in 1993. In other words, she has been honoured by the Queen (technically) for her contributions to literature, and is entitled to be addressed, on formal occasions, as Dame Muriel Spark.

Aiding and Abetting is a novel about Lord Lucan, a hereditary peer who was (and may still be) a living person. The name won't mean anything to you unless you're English, and over forty or so.

Lord Lucan was unhappily married. He had been in the army, but by 1974 he was a member of the idle rich who spent his time gambling. He was known as Lucky Lucan, but despite that he had large debts. On 7 November 1974, the Nanny of Lord Lucan's children was battered to death in the family home. Lucan's wife was also attacked, but managed to escape.

It was widely believed at the time, though never proved, that Lord Lucan had planned to kill his wife, on the Nanny's night off. But the Nanny had not gone out that night, and so Lucan, in his usual incompetent fashion, had killed the wrong woman.

Lucan promptly disappeared, and although there have been numerous 'sightings' he has never been traced. The police formed the view that Lucan's wealthy gambling friends, most of whom would cheerfully have battered Lady Lucan to death themselves, protected him at the time, and have provided him with funds ever since.

That, then, is the starting point of Muriel Spark's Aiding and Abetting. Should you wish to know more about the Lucan affair, you can find a whole web site devoted to it.

The first character to whom we are introduced is Dr Hildegard Wolf, a Paris-based psychiatrist. And Dr Wolf soon finds herself with two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. Dr Wolf, who has things to hide in her own past, is faced with the task of finding out whether either of the two men is telling the truth, and if so what is she going to do about it? And why have they come to her? Are they attempting to blackmail her?

As I said at the beginning, this is a deceptive book. There are, perhaps, too many coincidences for my fastidious taste, and the writing sometimes seems a little careless. But those are trivial points compared with the overall achievement. Furthermore, this is one of those rare books which get better and better as they go along. Until in the end I came to the conclusion that this one is quite wonderful.

One of the greatest prizes in fiction, in my view, is a story in which a character meets a fate which is entirely appropriate to his character, and which he brings about himself through an attempt to further his own nefarious ends. Which is exactly what happens in Aiding and Abetting.

What is more, the novel is gloriously politically incorrect in its conclusion. Now if that isn't a skilful piece of writing I don't know what is.

Yeah, you have to watch out for these sneaky old ladies. They're not as dumb as they look.

Oh, and another thing. This book is short! Yes, on top of all its other virtues it has that one as well.

King's Lynn Writers' Circle short story contest

The (UK) King's Lynn Writers' Circle short story and poetry competition is now open for entries. The closing date is 31 May. See www.lynnwriters.org.uk for full details and an entry form.

There are those who are deeply suspicious of short-story and poetry competitions, if they charge an entry fee (and this one does), on the grounds that they are money-making rackets. I can only say that most of those that I have seen in the UK seem harmless enough. Usually the number of entries times the individual entry fees amounts to a sum of money just about big enough to cover the prizes, and that's about it.

In this case stories may be up to 1500 words -- which is very short -- and poems up to 40 lines. Entry fees are £3 for the first entry, £2 for the second, and £1 for subsequent entries. The first prize in each section is £100, the second £50, the third £25. No one's going to get rich out of that.

The judge will be Sean Wright, of www.seanwright.co.uk. From which you will see, incidentally, that Mr Wright has had trouble with people pretending to be him.

Mary Higgins Clark a plagiarist?

Galleycat reports that Mary Higgins Clark is being sued for allegedly pinching the plot and characters of someone else's screenplay, for one of her books.

Well, leave aside that Mary Higgins Clark has demonstrated for -- what, thirty years? -- that she is perfectly capable of thinking up her own plots, what we have here is proof of the old show-business dictum: where there's a hit there's a writ.

Now you know why Hollywood will not read unsolicited scripts. Won't even open the package, in fact. It's because they got weary, back in about 1920, of being sued for similar allegations of plagiarism.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

David Irving and free speech

If you're remotely interested in the David Irving/free speech debate, Daniel Finkelstein has a good article in today's Times. Meanwhile, the Times also reports that the Austrian prosecutors are seeking to have Irving's jail sentence extended. Which statement I was tempted to put an exclamation mark after.

Well, I think it's all perfectly simple. David Irving is a fruitcake. He's been known to be a fruitcake, in the UK at least, for several decades, and has been treated as such. Since he's a historian, of sorts, he's been dealt with by professional historians, in recent times most notably by the American Deborah Lipstadt (who has a blog, by the way).

But three years in the slammer for having a peculiar interpretation of the facts? Hellfire, on that basis we should all be in the clink. Lisptadt has a more valid point when she says (on her blog) that there may be an element of perjury in Irving's testimony to the Austrian court, and that judges take a dim view of being jerked around.

Irving's books do at least serve one useful purpose. They demonstrate to those training in history that the same facts, more or less, can give rise to widely different interpretations. Fifty-odd years ago, when I entered the History Remove (yes, it really was called that, but we didn't have a fat owl), our teacher ordered us to read two short books about Luther. One book portrayed him more or less as a second son of God, sent down to end the corruption of the Roman Catholic church and to show us all the way to salvation; the other book portrayed Luther as the son of the devil, leading countless souls to perdition, and, incidentally (and coincidentally in terms of today's discussion) giving rise to rabid anti-semitism and leading directly to the rise of Hitler.

Same historical facts, different interpretations. Our shoolmaster made the point that it was up to each student of history to weave his way through the undergrowth and to try to discern the truth. But he didn't mention anything about three-year jail sentences.

One for the ladies?

You know how it is. You're in the newsagents, and some careless sod has knocked a copy of a magazine off the top shelf, and so you pick it up and put it back, and as you do so your eye, quite inadvertently, falls upon a page featuring some quite remarkable pictures.

And that is how, if memory serves, I come to know that one UK men's magazine used to have a page headed 'one for the ladies'. This page featured a picture of a nude man, and in the (wholly isolated, as I mentioned) case that I saw, his physique was far from impressive.

How did we get into all this? Oh yes. I heard about a novel which, by the look of it, is likely to appeal to women more than to men, and it comes from a publisher who is in the business of providing 'great books for grown women.' Well, I don't suppose that either author or publisher will thank me for so vulgar an introduction, but a graceless plug is better than none.

The book in question is Slippery When Wet, by Martin Goodman, and it's published by an Oxford-based firm called Transita. In brief, this novel concerns a 60-year-old English woman whose husband dies in the wrong bed, and who then goes off to Bangladesh, where she meets a beautiful young man called Seppen. And so forth.

Martin Goodman has a good track record. His first novel, On Bended Knee, was shortlisted for the Whitbread best first novel award, and he also has a great deal to say about the writing life. (Try his piece on Writing for Money.) He recently launched Slippery When Wet in Harare, where he was running a British Council workshop for writers. Martin believes, by the way, that the book has much wider appeal than might be thought from the publisher's mission statement: it is a cross-generational tale which hits lots of cross-cultural and religious buttons.

As for that dying in the wrong bed business, well, I once knew a very important man... But we won't go into that now. Suffice it to say that I wrote a heavily disguised version of the events, as a short story, in King Albert's Words of Advice.

And I also, now that I come to think about it, wrote a novel about a woman having an affair with a man much younger than herself: Passionate Affairs, written under the pen-name Anne Moore. It is my belief that books about 'relationships' of that sort have far more appeal for women readers than for men. But us blokes who venture into that territory don't need to worry too much, because there are lots of women readers out there. It's just a question, as ever, of finding them.

The Sony Reader will change everything -- maybe

Journalists -- and, yes, bloggers too -- tend to live by recycling and re-hashing stuff. And you can only read so much about digital books and ebook reading devices without a sense of deja vu developing and your eyes glazing over. However, if you want to read a reasonably well reseached and thoughtful piece about the 'coming revolution', you can find one on BusinessWeek Online, linked from booktrade.info.

My own view is that the problem of making a nice, cheap, and wholly successful ebook reader, about the size of a trade paperback, has nowhere near been cracked yet. The new Sony Reader, to be launched this spring, will cost $400 for a start, which is about $360 more than a tempting price.

More to the point, perhaps, Michael Cader, of Publishers Lunch is also doubtful. In a recent newsletter Michael said that 'clearly the press loves writing about this device [the Sony Reader] almost as much as they enjoyed lavishing ink on the first round of e-reader devices and players. But I've yet to find anyone in the publishing business who thinks this is going anywhere.'

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Scott Lynch hits Hollywood

Well, I tell ya, Val Landi's gonna love this one. It doesn't quite fit his template for the way things will happen in the future, but it comes close. And it will excite a few excitable people.

Back in April 2005, and again in November, I reported that Simon Spanton, of UK Gollancz, had read part of Scott Lynch's novel The Lies of Locke Lamora, on a blog, and had promptly signed the author to a multi-book contract.

I was initially sceptical about the way things might go, but rights were quickly sold in a number of countries, and now the film rights have been snaffled by some serious Hollywood big-timers. Publishers Weekly tells the tale in true Hollywood hyped-up fashion:
Perhaps already preparing for its next fantasy epic post-Potter, Warner Bros. has just nabbed the rights to Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, coming from Spectra [but from UK Gollancz first, please note] this June... for producers Michael De Luca (Zathura) and Julie Yorn (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) in a "high-end" deal. Described as "a gritty fantasy crime thriller" replete with sorcery, skullduggery and abandoned towers of alien-forged glass, the proposed seven-book series details the adventures of the titular con artist/hero as he navigates a Venice-like city-state called Camorr. The project was flooded with offers before the holiday break, until the WB's Kevin McCormick staked his claim. Lynch is repped by The Firm's Alan Nevins.
Crumbs. So you can go on dreaming then. Just think, it could happen to you. Or possibly not; depending, as I said somewhere else recently, on how much faith you have.

The impact of blogs

Everyone and his brother in the mainstream media is doing an article about blogs, and the effect they have. The latest is by Trevor Butterworth, in the Financial Times, and to tell the truth it isn't all that interesting -- apart, that is, from one statistic.

Butterworth explains that most blogs have very few readers. Only two blogs get over 1 million readers a day, the 100th most popular blog has only 9,700 readers a day, and the 1,000th has under 600.

Now that was really interesting, because the GOB currently pulls in between 500 and 600 readers a day. Last week, to be precise, it was an average of 534 per day, with 653 page views per day. That definitely puts things in perspective, for me at any rate -- especially when you remember that, in the same article, Butterworth tells us that there are 27.2 million blogs.

As for the power of blogs... Well, here's an instance, not quoted by Butterworth but made known to me by David Frauenfelder, over at Breakfast with Pandora. There are, of course, blogs about everything, and David's is about food. David recently found himself underwhelmed by an article in Food and Wine magazine which was somewhat dismissive of food blogs, and other bloggers felt the same. And you can find out what happened next in a summary on Paperpalate.

David's view is that magazines like Food and Wine are on the way out. Recipes, he says, are like music, easily read and traded on the internet. 'I see a time where POD cookbooks and recipe compilations will dominate the market.'

Trevor Butterworth also looks into the question of whether blogs make any money, and the short answer is that most of them don't. Should you be interested in how a blog might, in theory, develop an income stream for you, you can find some suggestions on Darren Rowse's Problogger site. The suggestions have so far prompted 87 comments.

Unfortunately none of the suggestions holds the slightest appeal for me, and the status of blogging was made abundantly clear to me by an 86-year-old aunt, only the other other day. The conversation went like this:

Auntie: How do you fill up your time now that you're retired?
Me: Well, I do quite a lot of writing. I run a thing called a blog, on the internet.
Auntie: Oh. And is that very remunerative?
Me: No. I've never earned a penny from it.
Auntie: Oh. Well in that case it doesn't count.

Giving it away

As I remarked once before -- actually in the introduction to the book version of the Grumpy Old Bookman -- bloggers are part of the gift economy. For the most part, bloggers do what they do for the fun of it. And it is also, in some quarters, customary for writers who have produced an actual printed book to give away free PDF copies of it, on the grounds that the resultant buzz -- if the book is buzzworthy -- will more than compensate for any supposed 'loss'.

Furthermore, it is standard practice, of course, for publishers, whether big-time or self-, to send out review copies to established mainstream media. What is much less common is for substantial numbers of free copies of the actual physical book to be handed out to bloggers.

However, Paul Dorrell is doing it. (Thanks to Liam Daly, who designed the book's web site, for the tip.)

Paul is a novelist and gallery owner, and this time out he has produced Living the Artist's Life, a non-fiction book which does pretty much what it says in the publicity, namely, provide a guide to 'growing, persevering, and succeeding in the art world.'

Paul and his publisher, Hillstead Publishing, have decided to give away 250 copies of Living the Artist's Life to any blogger who wants one. No strings attached, apparently, but you must have been blogging for three months and you must have a US mailing address. The last requirement is not surprising, given the hideous cost of airmailing a book anywhere.

Well, it will be interesting to see how cost-effective this exercise is. Full details of the offer are on Paul's blog. You can also read more about the book on its dedicated web site. This is not a new book, by the way: it was published nearly two years ago, so this marketing exercise is also unusual in that respect.

Paul Dorrell's book sounds reminiscent of Julia Cameron's book from the early 1990s, The Artist's Way. Described on the cover as 'A course in discovering and recovering your creative self', this has reportedly sold over two million copies and has proved inspiring to 'creative' people in a number of media. I have a copy, and until I looked at it just now I was sure I'd read it. But since there are no pencil marks whatever on it, I am no longer so sure. Maybe I'm confusing it with something else. In any case it all looks a bit too heavily concerned with 'self-expression' for my taste. But hey -- don't let me put you off.

Writing for the movies?

Are you interested in writing for the movies? You reckless fool, you. Still, if you're determined to ignore good advice, and if you live in the UK, there's a magazine with a web site which has information about masses of seminars and other ways to spend your hard-earned cash and dream your dreams.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Carmel Morgan: Smaller

On Friday last to the Theatre Royal, Bath (TRB) to see Smaller, a new play by Carmel Morgan. And the rest of what follows here is not so much a review of the play as a short disquisition upon the art and science of playwriting, and the state of the UK theatre in 2006.

The TRB is 200 years old. It seats about 900 people, and it acts as a receiving theatre, taking in touring plays which change every week. Bath is part of what might loosely be called the number-one touring circuit, which consists of a dozen or so major theatres in big provincial cities. Almost invariably, these touring plays or shows feature one or two star names. Seats at the TRB tend to be expensive, when compared with, say, a paperback book or a movie: for Smaller, a stalls seat cost £29.50.

Last week's offering was unusual in that it was a new play by a writer new to the stage. Carmel Morgan has been writing for seven years, and is currently one of 18 regular writers on the UK's oldest and best-loved TV soaps, Coronation Street.

In the UK, as in most other countries, very few new plays by unknown writers ever receive a production. Such productions as do occur are mostly in tiny 'theatres' which are no more than a room in a pub. Those acting often work for nothing, or for the largely illusory 'exposure' or experience. But there are still plenty of wannabe playwrights: a recent competition received 10,000 entries. (For details of the theatre's present attitude to new plays, see yesterday's Sunday Times article by Richard Brooks. You have to register to read it.)

It is also worth noting that the TRB is almost completely self-funding, in the sense that it does not get a major financial subsidy from some governmental body or other. But even those theatres on the touring circuit which are subsidised are very keen to put bums on seats. And the only proven way to do that is to have star names on the poster.

For the writer who wants to make any serious money, or who wants to establish any kind of reputation as a serious playwright, this requirement for a star to sign up for a play creates a more or less insoluble problem. Star names are not, by and large, interested in new plays.

Why not? Because they don't have to be, for one thing. And because it's too risky, for another. Why undertake the hard work (and it is hard work) of a touring production at all, when you can get better paid work in television or movies? And if you do have a burning desire to appear in front of a live audience, why risk your reputation in play which is a completely unknown quantity when you can appear in an old favourite by Shaw, or Noel Coward, or J.B. Priestley?

All of that being a simple fact of life in the UK theatre of today, I was interested to find out how Carmel Morgan had managed to pull off what is undoubtedly a very clever trick indeed -- new writer, new play, major production, star names attached. Especially as Smaller is said to be going to the West End. Fortunately the answer to how this feat was accomplished is in the programme.

It turns out that Carmel had some ambition to write a stage play, and the director, Kathy Burke, knew that Dawn French was looking for someone to write a vehicle specially for her; a vehicle which might also, perhaps, involve Dawn's friend Alison Moyet. So Kathy recommended Carmel to Dawn, and all these various talents seemed to click, and hence a play was born.

That kind of process is, in fact, the only way that I can conceive of a new play by a relatively unknown writer achieving a major production in the UK theatre of today.

Dawn French, by the way, is a name which will be known to all UK readers but may not be known overseas. Think Roseanne Barr. A woman of forty-something, short, fat, comedienne, and very good at it. Alison Moyet is an up-market pop singer. Kathy Burke is a very respectable and successful actress who, by her own admission, found that she was getting stale and turned to directing for a bigger buzz.

And so what is Smaller about? Essentially it's about a middle-aged woman (Dawn French) who has spent the last 25 years or so looking after her widowed and disabled mother. She has a full-time job as a teacher, and is good enough at it to have been promoted, but her spare time is zero. The Dawn character has a sister (played by Alison Moyet) who has failed to 'do her bit', and has gone off to Spain to make a career as a singer. If you can call rousing the rabble in a tourist bar either singing or a career. We do, incidentally, get to see Alison performing half a dozen songs which punctuate the action.

So, we have three characters only. An elderly, disabled Mum, devoted spinster daughter, passing up chances of a life of her own, and the sister who went off and did her thing. And as far as plot goes, that's about it. Sister comes back eventually, if only for an audition in a musical. She and the other sister have a bit of a row. Mum dies. Travelling sister goes off again, leaving the Dawn French character with the prospect, perhaps, of doing something different.

In an interview printed in the programme, Carmel Morgan says that writing for the stage proved harder than writing for television. And it shows. This is a two-act play. (They all are these days, even when they're revivals of plays which were written in a three-act form; Mr Blair must have passed some legislation forbidding plays from having more than one interval, and the playwright's carefully wrought three-act structure is not so much studiously ignored as carelessly chopped about.) And during the interval of this one Mrs GOB bet me money that act two would fizzle out. 'In modern plays they always do,' she said. And she was right.

Why did this happen? And what, precisely, is the nature of the failure? These are issues which affect all plays, not just this one.

Well, you won't have to read the GOB for very long before you find out that my belief/theory/argument is that plays, and novels, are all about emotion. Hotels sell sleep, doctors sell health, and playwrights and novelists sell emotion. Read Chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing if you want the complete story. (And yes, I will put up a free PDF of that book one day soon. It's just a matter of finding the time.)

The playwright's job, then, is to create emotion in the audience. And the theatre is different from the novel in that the audience is all gathered together in one place for the same purpose, and can, so to speak, interact. An audience of individuals can become, potentially, one body.

The thing to note about the theatre audience is that is absolutely seething with goodwill. Everyone who is there has gone to a great deal of trouble to be sitting in their seat. And they have often paid dearly for the privilege. So by golly these people are going to have a good time if they possibly can. Of course 'having a good time' in the theatre does not necessarily mean rolling about with laughter; it can mean having a good cry. But people will do their very best to co-operate with the writer; that's the point.

The writer, meanwhile, has to understand what the audience want, as has to make some attempt to provide it.

Smaller, as we now know, was designed primarily as a vehicle for Dawn French. So Dawn, naturally, and very professionally, gets a lot of laughs out of her role as the carer. Because that's what she does; she's a comedienne. Not many women could have the audience (well, some of them) rolling about with laughter at the spectacle of a carer getting a more or less paralysed woman out of a chair, into a wheelchair, lifting her out of the wheelchair and on to a disabled loo, and then waiting 'for things to happen'.

Things did happen, by the way. Cue sound effects: elderly woman piddling, followed by a plop, followed by laughter, loud and long, from the audience. You also, if you care to, get to see Dawn wiping Mum's bum; and, yes, donning a rubber glove and pushing her piles back into position. My dears, they howled.

As Mrs GOB pointed out, this scene wasn't actually funny at all. But this is a Dawn French vehicle. The audience -- notably younger than usual -- had come to see Dawn do her thing, and yes, she did make it funny. And this is an audience, you have to remember, which has seen The Office and Little Britain. And if you can laugh at either of those shows you would find the phone book funny.

Anyway, so far so good. The playwright has done her job (although the getting-her-on-the-loo scene could be played very differently) and the desired emotion has been created in the majority of the audience. But to succeed -- to be memorable -- a play has to be more than a succession of sketches. It has to be a whole, and it has to carry a powerful emotional punch. (And before I forget, let me say that a powerfully moving play will not just stir you on that one evening. It will literally embed itself in the molecules of your body -- see Professor Candace Pert's book The Molecules of Emotion if you don't believe me.)

And how, please, do we create a powerful emotional punch? Well, the traditional way is make use of the 'curtains' -- i.e. those moments at the end of a scene or an act when (in a proscenium-arch theatre) the curtain descends. See William Archer's 1912 book Play-making, chapter XVIII, for the old way of doing things. The Broadway playwright John Van Druten also had much to say about curtains in his 1953 book (still in print) Playwright at Work.

The curtains provide an opportunity for the skilful playwright to conclude a scene or an act with a memorable and moving line or action, something which is a natural and indeed inevitable culmination of what has gone before, and something which will either generate a roar of laughter, or, in the more subtle dramas, evoke genuine tears. If theatre is sex, then the curtains are orgasms.

Now in Smaller we had quite a few small scenes and two main curtains, at the ends of acts one and two. And both opportunities, I'm sorry to say, were completely wasted. Act one did not end at all; it just stopped. No orgasm there, then. Act one was all foreplay, after which the play took a rest to get its breath back.

The final curtain, regrettably, was far worse, to the point where the audience was left wondering whether the play had actually ended or not.

At the final curtain of Smaller, Mum has died, Dawn and Alison have slagged each other off (a bit half-heartedly, I thought), and then made up. Alison goes off to appear in a revival of Oliver and Dawn is left sitting at the table. Full stop. OK, so we are left with the idea that she might now be able to branch out, get married or travel, and have some sort of a life of her own. But that's an idea. It's not what is required, which is an emotion. The dick, if I may be so crude, went all limp on us.

The last time I saw a final curtain like that was in a play written by Harold Pinter, starring Harold Pinter, and directed by Harold Pinter. And Mr Pinter, as we all know, has recently won the Nobel prize. So, if Pinter does that kind of thing, it must not only be good practice but very definitely the best way to go. Right?

No. Wrong. You don't chuck away the tried and tested techniques unless you've got something better to replace them with.

There are other problems with Smaller, the chief one being that French and Moyet are not actresses. They're performers. Yes, they are absolutely top-quality performers, ace professionals whom it is a pleasure to watch. But they're not actually very good as actresses.

Fortunately they are in the presence of a woman who is a very fine actress indeed: June Watson, who plays Mum. June has done masses of plays with the National Theatre, the Royal Theatre Company, the Royal Court, television, films, you name it. And she holds the piece together.

Do I need to tell you that June Watson's name cannot be found in the advance publicity for the play, and that the poster features a head and shoulder shot of French and Moyet and no one else? That is explained, perhaps, by the fact that the part of Mum might not have been cast when the publicity was prepared. But I also have to report that, on the TRB web page giving details of this show, in the week when the play was being performed in Bath, June Watson's name cannot be found anywhere. (I will try to provide a link to that page here, but it might be gone by the time you read this because the play has moved on.)

Furthermore, if you look at the web site for the Theatre Royal in Brighton, where Smaller will play from 6 to 11 March, there is a similar silence about the actress who is so important to this play.

That omission I can only describe as shameful. But then, that is the UK theatre scene that we all know and love. Audiences will not pay £29.50 to see actresses. People want to see stars.

Waterstone's tries to make friends

Waterstone's new Managing Director, Gerry Johnson, is reportedly upset that some people are not happy with the company, and has embarked on a 'charm offensive'. See Publishing News for details (link from booktrade.info).

Presumably as a part of that charm offensive, Johnson is interviewed, sort of, by Nicholas Clee for the Times. Clee says that Waterstone's made a huge change of tack in 1999 when the firm chose Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes as its book of the month. But he doesn't say why.

Was this because Marian Keyes is (I understand) a huge seller, and the choice meant that the company was going to support big sellers rather than give its imprimatur to obscure literary names? Or was it a turning point because Keyes's publisher got Last Chance Saloon made book of the month by the simple expedient of handing over £10,000 in cash?

As a recent commenter reminded us, a 2001 article in the Spectator explained how the 'book of the month' type marketing schemes work. But the Clee/Johnson interview says not a word about it.

Was this because Clee didn't have the wit to ask? Seems unlikely. Or was it because Johnson said that that kind of question was off limits? If the latter, I think Clee should have said thanks, but run your own charm campaign.

Well, 2001 is now quite a long time ago, and I for one would like to know how Waterstone's and W.H. Smith currently operate their bung system. Is it a case of 'we'll plug anything for a fee'; or is that they approach publishers and say, We like this book and if you pay us we'll push it; or is February's pile nearest the door open for auction? Or what? I think we should be told, and I think it's about time some professional journalist found out.

The future of the book

Val Landi tells us about field events and how they will impact upon publishing.

Some of these crystal-ball gazers are real believers in the digital faith. I am too, but I also have doubts. Check it out for yourself.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Cory Doctorow on Google and the future of books

Booktrade.info provided a link to an article in Boing Boing about Google Book Search.

Now although Boing Boing is a very famous blog -- one of the first -- I don't go there very often and it was not immediately obvious to me who the author of this article was. However, as I read on I said to myself, Hmm, this reads a bit like Cory Doctorow. And guess what -- I was right. (Various clues in the text, such as the titles of his books; and, actually, his name in small print at the end.)

Not surprisingly, if you've been paying attention recently, Cory's article is full of good sense and clear thinking. Anyone who is sufficiently interested in books and publishing to be reading the GOB really ought to read the Doctorow article in full; but here are a few tasters of what he has to say.

His main point is that those publishers who are opposing the Google Book Search project (i.e. virtually all of them) have no case in law, and no moral case either; and, even if they had, would be far better employed in helping the project rather than hindering it.

Then, once again, he highlights the sheer technological ignorance, not to say foolishness, of those who think that digital rights management is actually going to work. 'From here on in, barring nuclear holocaust, bits will only get cheaper and easier to copy, period. Anyone who thinks bits will get harder to copy is either not paying attention or kidding himself or kidding you.'

And then he reminds us that the biggest problem that 99.999% of writers have to deal with is not the theft of their copyright, it is the fact that no one has ever heard of them. 'The majority of ideal readers who fail to buy my book will do so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free electronic copy.'

And a whole lot more. Such as the fact that every twenty years or so the entertainment industry uses its muscle and wealth to 'persuade' the politicians to extend copyright still further, to no one's benefit except that of the shareholders in the big companies involved.

Towards the end, the article broadens out into a wider consideration of the future of the book.

If I were a religious man I would go down on my knees and thank the Lord for sending us Cory Doctorow and the few others who seem to possess any common sense in this world of books.

Which reminds me. At the end of the recent discussion on this blog about the thoughts of Jeremy Snippet, Mr Snippet (I think it is he) closes the proceedings by accusing me of being too nice to publishers. Me? Nice to publishers?

I must say my mouth dropped open a bit at that one. It seems to me that for the past two years I have sat here and made the same old statement, time after time, like an 78-rpm record stuck in a groove. What I have said, briefly, is this:

All the publishing folk that I have met over the past fifty years or so have struck me, as individuals, as being pleasant, polite, good company over a meal, and all like that. Collectively, however, as an industry, publishers are manifestly clueless. Braindead. Out to lunch. Nothing between the ears. Not fit to be allowed out without Nanny.

True, they have begun to focus a bit more sensibly, these last few years, on the need to make a profit or die. But the poor old things have no real idea how to do it, and they flail about helplessly for the most part, working by guess and by God. As for the future -- well, they have so much trouble working out whether it's Wednesday or Thursday that asking them to think ahead is a bit unkind really.

However, they might start by reading Cory Doctorow.

Photography and writing

One of my other interests, besides writing, is photography, and I have noticed, over the years, that the world of photography and the world of writing have many features in common.

For instance, both have sets of highbrow critics who talk the most amazing nonsense, and yet are taken seriously by oodles of people who really ought to be old enough, and smart enough, to know better.

I was reminded of this by an article in the Times, earlier this week, about the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize (fomerly known, in honour of its then sponsor, as the Citibank prize). In that article, Tim Teeman, who several years ago was one of the judges, relates how it felt to listen to other judges talking.
I recall one severe-looking judge looking at a selection of a photographer’s work and claiming: “It’s the new humanism”, to which another replied, “That’s what bothers me. The artist has a false naivety.” A third asked: “Is it too passive?”, to which somebody else hissed: “Too tasteful?”, and not to be outdone another spat: “Too nice?” (Being “nice” was the worst thing any artist could be accused of). Man, those judges were bitches, albeit of rather highbrow stock.
Seems to me I've heard that kind of thing before, in another context.

One man who writes very sensibly about photography is Ben Breard, owner of the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas. On his web site he includes a number of his own essays and reflections on the art. One of the most revealing of these is entitled The Untalented Photographer. This I found particularly interesting, not least because I am an untalented photographer myself (I will leave it to others to judge my writing).

Breard explains that it is often a difficult task to have to tell someone that their work really isn't up to exhibition standard, and may never be. But the bit that struck home with me is this. After Breard has, as kindly as possible, explained to people that he cannot sell their work, they pick up their portfolio and leave, eyes straight ahead. They very seldom pause, have a look round the gallery, and take the trouble to examine what he can sell.

It seems to me that there is a message here for writers. As far as I am concerned, it is abolutely sensible and reasonable to sit down and write your own novel (or whatever), without any consideration of market requirements at all. It can be as traditional or experimental as you wish: 40 pages or 4,000. Your choice.

Further, it makes perfect sense to go ahead and publish that work yourself, in one form or another.

What does not make any sense, to me, is to write without any consideration of market requirements, but then to expect that the market will somehow adapt to you. It just isn't going to happen.

So the smart thing to do, to avoid heartache and time wasted, is to make up your mind, pretty early on, which game you're in.

Quick links

Here are some links to stuff which might intrigue, or depress, or infuriate.

If you're interested in the e-book (or even ebook) phenomenon, Telereads has plenty to say on the subject. (Thanks to Paul Perry in Melbourne for the link.)

Spike magazine has an interview with Scott Pack. I don't think Scott is deliberately telling fibs, but if he really has time to do as much reading as he says, I'm amazed.

The storySouth 2006 Million Writers Award for fiction is now open. You can read the rules and nominate a story.

Victor Keegan has been trying out a number of self-publishing services.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Skye Rogers: Drink Me

I don't often read a book by an unknown author, prior to publication, and say to myself Hmm... this could be a really big seller. But that's what I think about Drink Me, by Skye Rogers.

Drink Me is scheduled for publication in Australia, by HarperCollins/Fourth Estate, on 22 February. And I can't find it on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. So here's a tip for any UK or US publishers or agents whose eye may, quite inadvertently, have fallen upon this page: it might be worth finding out what the rights position is.

Drink Me is a memoir, and in view of the current hoohah about Memoirs and the Truth, it is worth noting the author's statement at the start of the book:

This memoir is based on certain episodes of my life that may be remembered differently by others. I have changed names, combined characters and compressed or extended events for narrative purposes.
So now you know the position. And it seems to me to be a perfectly proper one for an author to take. In other words, as I read it, the author is manipulating real-life events in order to create emotion in the reader, and in so doing to convey to the reader the greater 'truth', if you will, of the author's own experience. That seems to me to be not only acceptable but wise; otherwise the book would be both less interesting and less valuable.

The story of Drink Me is very simple. Sensitive, intelligent, and talented young woman is, naturally, in search of Mr Right. She meets him, falls in love, commits herself fully to him for several years, but then discovers not only that he is Mr Wrong, but he is Mr Alcoholic as well. (And he was into porn and affairs with other women.) It is a story which could not end happily, and it doesn't -- except that Skye is at least free to get on with the rest of her life. The setting is Australia but it could be anywhere.

There's a great deal more that I could say about the book's contents, but that's all you really need to know, and the rest of this review falls into two parts. One is a discussion of the structure of the book, for no better reason than that is a problem of narrative technique which interests me; and the other is an analysis of why I think Drink Me could find a large audience.

Those who write an autobiography, or a memoir, are faced with the problem of how to arrange their material to best effect. A complete amateur would probably start at the beginning (I was born on 4 May 1939...) and go on to the end, timewise. But even the first reader will soon advise the writer that this is not very interesting. How then to do it?

The answer, I believe, is to intercut, moving between various points in the past in a way which will arouse interest. And if you want a really good example, though one which I suspect is long since out of print, see Early Havoc, by June Havoc. In that book, alternate chapters deal with June's early life, on a chronological basis, and events during a dance marathon in which she participated as a teenager. The book was no doubt ghosted, but whoever it was did one hell of a job. June, by the way, was the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee, whose life led to the Broadway show and musical Gypsy.

Skye Rogers, in Drink Me, does not use so rigid a structure, but she waits until we are some way into the story of her relationship with her main man, Daniel, before telling us about such matters as her earlier love affairs, her eating problems, drugs, the psychiatric hospital, suicide attempts, and so forth. And if that sounds depressing, it is, sort of, but not because it's badly written. Quite the reverse: of its kind, this book is exceptionally well done. The book is slightly depressing (for me at any rate) because it reminds us of the extent of human folly.

And now we come to the book's sales prospects. I spent the first third of Drink Me wondering how it came to find a publisher. Not, I repeat, because the book is badly written; but who, I wondered, would buy it? But then the penny dropped. This is an absolutely universal story: it is, in its way, Everywoman's story.

Consider, if you will, the present state of relationships between men and women. We are all biologically programmed to go in search of each other; but you surely cannot sit there and tell me that, in today's world, the results are satisfactory. Without even trying hard I can think of countless friends who, even if they have contrived to stay married themselves, have sons and daughters who are divorced, separated, not seeing their children, et cetera.

I don't know exactly how old Skye Rogers is, but she's fortyish. Let's take the average woman of that age. She is likely to be married, or shacked up with, someone who goes out early, comes home late, eats a meal, slumps in front of the telly, and falls asleep. He is a paunchy, jowly, balding apology for Prince Charming. He is a man with serious shortcomings; especially in bed. Our heroine, come nine o'clock in the evening, will look across the room and say to herself, How the thump did I ever fall for him?

That's if she's lucky. If she's not lucky she will have a plate in her jaw from where one of her many men hit her with a baseball/cricket bat, she will have been given a nasty dose of the clap by the bloke before last, the one who went off to live with that nice young man from the boutique, and the kids, if there are any, will be living in a foreign country where they were taken in open defiance of a court order.

The truth is, and I would like to say that I am joking here, but I'm not, most of these women would be far better off with a bottle of wine and a good vibrator.

These are the women -- and they are not few in number -- who are going to find that Drink Me doesn't just strike a chord: it's plays the whole tune; and it's a hit record. Yes, they will say, as they turn the pages. Yes, yes, I know, I know. I did that too. And oh, that's so true.

As Mrs GOB has been known to remark, not referring to anyone in particular, there are a lot of disillusioned women out there. And they are the audience for this book.

The current British bestseller list features an unexpectedly large number of books about women who had a hard time. There's Ugly, in which one of the UK's first black women judges tells how she survived childhood abuse. Then we have I Choose to Live, by a Belgian girl who was abducted by a paedophile; Just One More Day, by the novelist Susan Lewis, which is a memoir of her difficult childhood, and The Little Prisoner, the story of a girl abused by her stepfather from the age of four. And that's not even counting the two books by Katie Price (aka Jordan, the generously bosomed model), who describes the ups and downs of her love life.

So those are the reasons why I think Drink Me could, perhaps, take off.

After Daniel departed, by the way (and it was a good many years on), Skye Rogers fell for another alcoholic. She describes herself as a slow learner. But now she lives with a scientist whose sole addiction is nicotine. Which, I have to say, is quite bad enough.

It is not surprising, given the skilful way in which Drink Me is put together, to find that Skye Rogers has written a number of other books. You can find details of these on her web site. One of them was a memoir written jointly with her mother. She is also a designer and illustrator, turning her hand to anything from greetings cards to packaging and logos.

Remind me -- do I have memory problems?

Crumbs. Golly. And all like that.

A day or two ago I wrote about Michael Dibdin's review of Jonathan Freedland's novel (written as Sam Bourne), The Righteous Men. And I had clean forgotten that, back in 2004, I expressed a few views on the contract to write same, which was awarded by HarperCollins with the traditional six figures attached.

It wasn't until I read the Literary Saloon's outrage at the Guardian's behaviour in this little kerfuffle, and found myself being congratulated on my prescience, that I even knew that I'd mentioned Jonathan Freedland and his book before. And it seems that I had quite a lot to say on the subject, too.

Crumbs, as I say. Perhaps you can get pills for this kind of thing?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Michael Gilbert -- the last gentleman amateur?

Michael Gilbert, who died last week aged 93, was an English gentleman of the old school. He was also a fairly well known crime writer, and although he was never a big international name, like Ian Fleming, he was honoured as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

Both the Telegraph and the Times published full obituaries, and the Telegraph's is the one to read if you want details. For a bibliography, go to our faithful friend Fantastic Fiction.

The point I want to make here, however, is that Michael Gilbert was a prolific novelist, producing at least a book a year for several decades, and yet he was never a full-time writer. After service in World War II, he joined the law firm of Trower Still & Keeling, becoming a partner in 1952. He remained with them until his retirement in 1983, at the age of 71.

How then did he produce his books?

Simple. He used to commute to London from his home in Kent. The journey took 30 minutes. In the mornings he wrote two foolscap pages (about 400 words), and in the evenings he did research and planning. Every novel was meticulously plotted before he began to write.

There is a lesson there, I think, for those who believe that a three-year MFA degree course is necessary in order to bring forth one's first literary child.

I last met Michael Gilbert at a large conference for crime-fiction fans in London, in 1990. At the final dinner, attended by several hundred people as I recall, Michael was given a lifetime-achievement award and I won a prize for a stage play. (Spykiller, if you're interested.)

I noticed that Michael did not hang about afterwards. He received his award gracefully, made a short speech, and then left. No doubt he had a train to catch. And 400 words to write in the morning.

Amazon and the review syndrome

Gerard Jones reports that Amazon.com has been playing silly buggers with the reviews of Ginny Good, and he is not pleased.

At the beginning of February there were 61 reviews of Gerard's book on Amazon. Now there are 36 and some of the ones that are left are, shall we say, a bit weird. Gerard believes that Amazon have kept some reviews and deleted others according to their own criteria, a process which he describes as censorship and, as you would expect, complains about.

Miss Snark says that she had a client to whom the same thing happened, and believes that the problem results from a computer glitch. She says that you can get it fixed if you say pretty please and keep at it, writing in and writing in for months on end. Good luck, Gerard.

Meanwhile, Wall-Street analysts are finding that getting detailed information out of Amazon is the traditional blood and stone situation. And the last company that I remember behaving like that was Enron. (Link from booktrade.info.)

Another incident, which may or may not shed some light on Amazon practices, is one involving 2005 Blogged, edited by Tim Worstall. This book is a collection of essays from the blogosphere, chosen to feature 'the very best writing from the rising stars of online journalism'. The GOB, coughs modestly, was one of the bloggers included.

Most of the contributors will have reviewed the book on their blog -- I certainly did -- and Tim asked us all to post the reviews on Amazon. I did that too, and I imagine others did the same. But so far no review from a contributor has appeared. Why not? Any contributor will have occupied only a page or two out of 224 pages, and we will have had plenty of perfectly valid things to say about the rest. So what's the problem? If someone thinks we have a financial axe to grind, quite wrong: no royalties to come whatever.

Actually I'm surprised that Amazon has enough staff to deal with such matters on an individual basis. There are an awful lot of books in their catalogue. And I suspect that, as is usual in business these days, if there are any human hands involved they probably belong to people who are young, based overseas, and seriously underpaid. I'm not sure that I have any faith in their judgement.

Gerard's view is that all reviews should be allowed to stand, regardless. From the mud, he says, grows the lotus.

Free speech, David Ben-Ariel, Christmas, New Year, and Iraq

One of the features highighted by the current debate about free speech (cartoons et al) is that the principle allows people to say a lot of things that you may not agree with. And if you're uncomfortable about that, then I fear that the only advice I can offer is, Get used to it. Or, better yet, make use of the now-numerous opportunities to put forward your own two pennorth.

It is in that spirit that I offer a connection to a writer whose views I by no means share, but who illustrates rather nicely what can be done through the internet and by the use of such companies as PublishAmerica.

David Ben-Ariel is a 46-year-old with extremely strong views on religion, and he uses various blogs and books to express his views in forcible terms. You might start, for instance, by looking at his eponymous blog, David Ben-Ariel, on which he plugs his book Beyond Babylon. This is a book that you can read online if you wish. There are also links to countless other articles and blogs.

David also has a blog called Christmas is an Abomination. (I agree with that bit, by the way.) He provides considerable evidence to make the point (which was grumpily referred to here in 2004) that, whatever else it may be, 25 December is certainly not the day when Jesus Christ was born. David quotes a sermon by C.H. Spurgeon, preached on 24 December 1871, in which the Rev. declares that 'if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Savior was born, it is the 25th of December.'

Neither does the New Year celebration meet with David's approval. It is, he declares, a pagan abomination in which the Devil takes a delight. Wrong time of year entirely.

I could go on. If you are puzzled by the war In Iraq and the mysteries of the Middle East, then David's links will prove useful, because without too much trouble you can find a book written by 18-year-old Ryan Mauro, Death to America -- the Unreported Battle of Iraq. In this book, the 'secret agendas of Europe, Russia, and all the world's powers' are explained by 'one of the nation's youngest geopolitical analysts.'

Such is the power of ideas, which can now be made readily available for the enlightenment of all through the digital media at our disposal.

Good luck, kids.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Intellectual property

The Times today (Monday 13 February) has a pull-out supplement on intellectual property. I haven't had time to explore it properly yet, but it looks as if it will be useful. Though it will relate (presumably) to the law of England and Wales only.

The supplement doesn't appear to be available online, but you might have better luck searching for it than I did.

Michael Dibdin flouts convention

If there is one cast-iron rule in what used to be called Fleet Street (i.e. the UK newspaper business) it is that any journalist who writes a book can absolutely guarantee that said book will be reviewed in his own and every other major newspaper. Why? Because every journalist is going to write a book sooner or later, and they will all want their books to be reviewed everywhere. QED. It's a case of mutual back-scratching; not only the done thing but actually given legal embodiment (see section 62 of the Old Pals Act of 1898).

So, when the Guardian's political commentator Jonathan Freedland wrote a thriller, under the pen-name Sam Bourne, he had no difficulty in getting the Guardian's books desk to send it out for review. In this case to Michael Dibdin, a fairly regular crime reviewer for the Grauniad.

Unfortunately, the book team seem to have forgotten to tell Dibdin that the book was by One of Us, and when the review came in it was less than enthusiastic. 'A mixture of plonking facts and breathless platitudes... you read on, if only out of morbid curiosity about which bit of kabbalistic hokum you're expected to swallow next.... really bad writing.'

Oh dear. This wouldn't do at all. So they asked Dibdin to tweak it up a bit. Substitute 'brilliant' for 'bad', for instance.

Whereupon Dibdin had a fit of the integrities and sent the review to the Times instead. Who not only published it but explained why, in the People column.

This really isn't good enough, you know. Someone ought to take this chap Dibdin to one side and explain how things are done. Whatever next? Books reviewed according to whether they're any good or not?

Dibdin, by the way, is a writer himself. Author of the Aurelio Zen series. Which I don't actually like, but that's another story.

One chance in 200,000?

Publishers Lunch reports that Kathleen McGowan's originally self-published novel The Magdalene Line has been bought by Touchstone for seven figures and is quickly bringing in almost that much from foreign bidders in advance of the London Book Fair.

So, a million bucks for a self-published novel. Not bad, eh? The book was originally published by Booksurge, by the way, which is happy to congratulate Kathleen, even though that edition seems to have been withdrawn. Booksurge also says that it's a three-book deal, no doubt with some small print involving the seven figures.

You can get some idea of the book's contents and the background to this success story from Kathleen's own web site. The site reprints the Touchstone press release.

This deal is presumably another one influenced by the Da Vinci effect. What is it with the Mary Magdalene stuff? I don't get it myself. But then if I did I'd be rich and famous.

Before you start dreaming too many dreams about what you will do with your million bucks when your self-published novel inevitably makes it, you might like to do your own calculation as to how likely it is that a contract will eagerly be pressed upon you. My own guess is that the chance is about 1 in 200,000.

In any event, it's somewhere between slim and zero; and Slim, I fear, was on the last bus out of town yesterday.

Jeremy Snippet quotes from real life

Jeremy Snippet has contributed a lengthy comment on my post of 2 December 2005, which was written in response to an earlier comment of his. As 2 December is now far back in the mists of time, blogwise, you are unlikely to see this comment unless I point it out, so that I now do.

Jeremy (a pseudonym) is evidently a person well connected in the media/book world and he gives some real-life examples of the advances paid by publishers to real-life writers. These advances he describes as fees, a terminology which I think is appropriate. He also maintains that 'known names', or favoured parties, get paid a hell of a lot more than unknowns from the sticks. I wouldn't disagree with that either.

Where I do differ from Jeremy slightly is in this respect: I do not believe that publishers wholly disregard sales calculations when deciding what advance to offer an author, whether a person of standing or otherwise. But their sales calculations are made on a basis different to that which most writers might expect, given what is stated (or used to be) in the typical bog-standard contract.

Writers' remuneration used to be based on a royalty rate, typically (for hardback) 10% of the recommended retail price. That used to be sensible for books with sales of a thousand copies or two (and maybe still is sensible). But when you get a book which is likely to sell tens of thousands -- or which they hope will sell tens of thousands -- the arithmetic becomes completely different.

If you order a print run of 100,000 copies, then the unit cost of each book falls to an amazingly low figure. Which means that a publisher can afford to pay to a writer a sum of money for each book which is far in excess of traditional royalty rates and still make a substantial profit.

That is the main reason why huge advances can be 'justified' -- at least in the eyes of an optimistic editor/publisher.

Other factors also enter into the calculation. A bidding war may 'force' a publisher to pay more than she would wish. After all, you've got to win an auction every now and then or you cease to be a credible player, and you don't get offered 'big' books at all.

Also, there may be other perceived (if not readily demonstrable) benefits from publishing a famous name for well-publicised huge advance. Prestige. Getting talked about as a big-time publisher, which encourages other big names to write for you. And some of those big names may be dumb enough to be so dazzled by your big name that they will work for less than their market value. That kind of thing.

Of course, it isn't an exact science, and, yes, many hard-working writers do end up getting a pittance and little thanks. But, as they used to say in the trenches in World War I, if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined the army.

Worried about your book?

Are you one of those people who worry about who is reading your manuscript when you send it in to an agent or a publisher? Do you sometimes suspect that it may not be accorded quite the careful consideration that it deserves? If so, you'd better not read this bit.

If, on the other hand, you've never had any illusions whatever about the slush-pile procedure, and have always assumed that unsolicited submissions are read, if at all, by gum-chewing college kids, moonlighting for a dollar or two per hour (if that), giving your ms all of 30 seconds' attention before pinning a standard rejection slip on to it and sliding it back into the SAE which you thoughtfully provided (they, meanwhile, watching a past episode of Friends on the office telly), then this story may give you a bit of a tee-hee-hee. Or not, as the case may be.

The story comes from Galleycat, who got it by an amazingly circuitous route, far too complicated to go into here. Anyway, the story is that, back in June 2005, a 19-year-old intern was put to work (it seems) on the slush-pile at a respectable US publisher. He wrote a blog about his experiences.

Not everything that our young reader came across met with his undiluted approval. One ms amused him greatly, because it was written by an eighteen-year-old who clearly had no understanding of human sexuality. Whereas our guy, of course, being a whole year older.... He decided to keep that submission, with a view to reading it out to his friends, who would doubtless be convulsed by it all.

Galleycat says that 'it's almost worth going through this guy's entire June 2005 archive just for the spectacle of a 19-year-old kid lecturing people on how to submit manuscripts, and to hear about how he straightened the place out.'

Well yes. No doubt. Maybe some other time, when I'm not quite so busy.

I have anonymised the details, by the way, because I am inclined to forgive the young their foolishness. The reason being that I have noticed, over the years, that foolishness is a condition which tends to persist for several years -- yea, even into one's sixties.

Galleycat, by the way, is part of mediabistro, and, as I have mentioned before, is a highly professional and authoritative sort of blog with excellent connections. The writers are Ron Hogan, long-time head of Beatrice.com, and Sarah Weinman. Now if they gave you a verdict on your ms it might mean something.

Friday, February 10, 2006

If you're struggling to keep up...

...with developments in the digital world, and how they affect book publishing, keep an eye on Val Landi's blog, because he has his ear down at gravel level. He also has good links to other people equally well connected.

In his latest post Val compares the attitude of the present-day book industry with that of the movie business some twenty-five years ago. He also links to an extensive essay by Doc Searls, one of the founders of the blog world and a man who really knows what is happening.

The key point made by Doc Searls seems to be this: content distribution is becoming more efficient, and is being 'routed from more and more independent producers to more and more independent consumers.' Translates as: big boys are in trouble, whether in TV, film, publishing, music; and, conversely, small operators are faced with opportunities.

Compare and contrast with the view from the inside of the book trade given by Lynne W. Scanlon.

True, the video-recorder did not kill the movie business, and POD and ebooks and Booksurge will not kill off Random House, HarperCollins, Waterstone's, and W.H. Smith (though some of those named are doing their level best to commit suicide). But there will be changes. Are you ready? Are you thinking clearly, children?

'The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.' — Veteran of a firm now free-falling out of the Fortune 500. Lifted from Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual (1999).

Das Book

Slate carries an insightful article on why it is that German, French, and British companies are quite keen to buy American publishers (link from booktrade.info).

The main thrust of the article is a point which young wannabe writers are often completely unaware of, namely that, in financial and commercial terms, book publishing is a piddling little business of no real interest to any serious wheeler-dealer.

Time Warner, for instance, owner of such major publishing imprints as Little, Brown and Warner Books, has a market value of $85 billion. And it's just sold the publishing arm of the business (well, more like a fingernail, actually) for $537 million. In other words, publishing was six-tenths of one per cent of Time Warner. And yet writers imagine that selling a book to Little, Brown is a really big-time deal. T'ain't. Except, as I say, when viewed within the context of a piddling little business overall.