Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wednesday mixture

W.H. Who?

Duncan Fallowell, novelist and columnist in the First Post, is astounded that, after what he describes as last year's mass orgy for John Betjeman, there is nothing being published in the whole of this year to mark the centenary of the birth of one of our greatest poets, W.H. Auden. Faber are apparently to do a revised version of the Selected Poems at some point, but nowt else. Mr Fallowell reckons that this says more about the state of British publishing than any other single fact.

My own modest researches show that if you enter the name Betjeman into the title search on the British Library catalogue, you get 47 results. Enter Auden and you get 226. This is a reflection, I think, of the 'seriousness' of the respective poets: Auden attracts far more lit crit of the academic kind. Betjeman, by contrast, was a much more 'popular' poet; he appeared on the telly a lot himself, and also proved suitable for TV slebs to go on about how important he was in their lives.

Charley's Aunt

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last night to see the very first performance of a new production of Brandon Thomas's 1892 classic, Charley's Aunt. Stephen Tompkinson stars, and Mel Smith directs.

Charley's Aunt is a full-blown English farce, with a touch of sentiment, one of the big smash hits of all time. It was probably the first play to exploit to the full the comic spectacle of a respectable member of the aristocracy appearing in drag.

The plot concerns a number of Oxford undergraduates who desperately need a chaperone to enable them to entertain their girlfriends to lunch (how times change, eh?). They therefore persuade one of their number to dress up as the aunt of one of them. Matters deteriorate from then on in true farcical fashion.

Well, the old play creaks a bit in places, but there are still plenty of laughs, and the last ten minutes are a model of how to round things off with perfect economy. Considering that we were seeing the very first performance of this version (I gather that the dress rehearsal ended one hour before curtain up) it was pretty slick and will doubtless improve. It goes on a sixteen-week tour and is worth seeing if it comes your way.

The history of Charley's Aunt is worth studying from a writer's point of view. Brandon Thomas wrote it as a vehicle for William Sydney Penley, a star of the day. A contract was signed between the two of them, giving Penley a seven-year lease as manager, with the option of a further seven years. Thomas got an advance of £50 against royalties, but in the fourteen-year period of his lease Penley earned £200,000 from the play.

That wasn't the only problem. The contract gave Thomas total control over the text, but on a preliminary tour Penley butchered the play, giving himself all the best lines and introducing bits of business. M'learned friends had to be summoned to put matters right.

Assessing risk

Further to Monday's post about the difficulty of thinking clearly, the Financial Times carried an article over the weekend which considered why it is that humans are so bad at estimating risk. It turns out that we overestimate the risk of bad things happening, in just the same way as we overestimate the likelihood of good things happening. The results, both for individuals and for society, can be profoundly unhelpful.

Mr Bringhurst's other talents

A while back, I reviewed here, with some enthusiasm, the inspiring text on typography, The Elements of Typographic Style, written by the Canadian Robert Bringhurst.

I mentioned in passing that Mr Bringhurst is something of a polymath, but is perhaps principally a poet. And now, in an article in the Times, Jeanette Winterson writes about another Bringhurst book, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks.

This book, says Ms Winterson, 'is a wonderful journey through the possibilities of language, wherever found, and the inevitability of poetry and storytelling, something that he understands as both necessary and natural.'

The Tree of Meaning isn't even published in the UK, but Winterson suggests that her readers should order it specially. I might. But the point that struck me most forcibly is that, although Bringhurst is widely recognised as the expert on typographical design, Winterson knows nothing of that -- just as I know nothing (yet) of his poetry or his work on language. But she does say that The Tree of Meaning 'has been beautifully produced, and is well worth the having as well as the reading.'

Short notes

Peter Cox is a formidably successful marketing man, author, and now agent. You can read about his background here. More to point, perhaps, he now blogs about the publishing business. He also offers advice to writers on

The longlist (22 titles) for the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award has been announced. A shortlist of six titles will be follow, as is traditional, in time for Valentine’s Day.

The Peter Owen publishing company, one of the UK's small but perfectly formed independents, has started a blog.

Elastic Press is another small UK press that I hadn't come across before. It's dedicated, as far as I can see, to the weird and fantastic, in the form of single-author short-story collections. They were winners of the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Small Press, 2005. Thanks to Roger for the link.

Apology. Despite Blogger's defences, a number of spammers have penetrated the comments section of this blog. Life is too short, I fear, for me to delete all of them, but they are normally entirely obvious.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tuesday in court

This explains a great deal

New York magazine has a wonderful piece about Judith Regan, who was (you will doubtless recall) the brains behind the O.J. Simpson book which didn't quite make it (yet) into print.

Among many other fascinating things, New York says that, in the first week of November last, Regan and a couple of other ladies in her office embarked on a 21-day fast, in order to clear their skin, clarify their minds, and otherwise effect dramatic improvements upon their battered bodies and souls.

It's a looooong piece, and if you're rushed for time there's a summary on Galleycat. But reading the whole thing gives you a brand-new insight into the wonderful world of trade publishing, 2007-style. Despite the non-cooperation of some key players, it's also the best piece of journalism that I've read in quite some time.

Big Bruvver is over

Some people, I dare say, would keep quiet about watching Celebrity Big Brother; or, if they admitted it, would say that they watched it in an ironic, postmodernist manner. Well, I watched it like a run-of-the-mill punter, and I enjoyed it. More to the point, perhaps, I found aspects of it extremely revealing.

As mentioned last week, CBB this time around caused a media firestorm in both the UK and India. Just a few days ago, the show was accused of fostering bullying and racist abuse. And look what actually happened in the end!

For them as doesn't know, the show starts out with 12 or 15 celebrities, locked up in a closed environment, and every so often the Great British public gets to vote someone out. At the end of nearly four weeks, the most popular person is the one left, and he or she gets labelled the winner.

This time, guess who the last three celebrities were. None of them was a British citizen, for a start. There was Dirk Benedict, a 61-year-old white American actor. Then there was Jermaine Jackson, 52, a black American singer, and one of Michael's several brothers; he is also a recent convert to Islam, and has adopted the Islamic name Muhammad Abdul Aziz. (An interview with Jermaine, in which he describes his conversion, is available online.) Finally we had Shilpa Shetty, who is an Indian actress, a big star in Bollywood, and older than she looks at 31.

All of these last three were extremely interesting characters, and, in their different ways, impressive people. Dirk came third, Jermaine second, and Shilpa first, with a massive 63% of the votes.

Yes, of course the Asian community will have voted for Shilpa, but a lot of other people must have too. And, since CBB is sneered at by the intellectuals of this world, most of the voters must have been from the UK's under-100-IQ brigade.

I have to say that I find this result slightly astonishing. The people who have been most disadvantaged by the waves of immigration into the UK over the last few decades have been precisely the people most likely to watch and vote on this show. And yet three non-Brits come top. This is further proof, in my mind, that the British qualities of tolerance and fair play, which one might reasonably have thought were long since dead, are in fact alive and well. The voting clearly wasn't influenced by racial origins: it was all to do with character.

But what has any of this to do with books, you may be wondering. Patience.

To begin with, we have the curious phenomenon of CBB reviving a book which was first published in 1987. Dirk Benedict then wrote Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, an autobiography which tells how, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1974, Dirk cured himself, without surgery, through a macrobiotic diet, exercise, and fasting.

The book, which also describes his life in acting, was reprinted in 1991 and 2005. Abebooks reports that Dirk's appearance on CBB triggered a sudden demand for secondhand copies.

Then there's Jade Goody's autobiography. Or rather, there isn't. Jade was the CBB contestant who was accused of being a racist bully, and was voted out by the public pronto. Last week HarperCollins announced that they will not be issuing the paperback version of her autobiography, scheduled for February. The book appeared in hardback last May.

I find this decision very odd. What are HarperCollins afraid of? Public opprobrium? Loss of their reputation for something or other?

If so, their fears are misplaced. The reading public has no idea who publishers are. Writers the public knows about; and bookshops; and printers. But publishers? Not one reader in a hundred ever notices the name of the publisher of the book they're reading. So, to my mind, cancelling a book which could still earn a few bob constitutes careless use of firearms in a downwardly direction.

And also, be it noted, Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins in New York, is quoted in the New York magazine article, referred to above, as not wanting HC to be known as a company that kills books. Well, so far they're doing a pretty good job of it.

Meanwhile, who will sign Jermaine for a book of self-help wisdom, based on his recently adopted Islamic faith? And who will sign Shilpa? If nothing else, she showed herself to be a remarkably resilient and articulate young woman, with a shrewd sense of how to make friends and influence people. Perhaps her book should be called How to get out from under your Mum's thumb -- at last.

Channel 4, by the way, which showed CBB, was the target of a great deal of hypocritical abuse from other sections of the media. To my mind, Channel 4 ran the show with admirable professionalism. And part of the credit for that must go to their Chairman, Luke Johnson.

Luke is a very smart fellow. How do I know that? Because he was once a publisher, and had the good sense to get out of that business and into something which pays better.

Johnson described his time as a publisher as 'a painful experience.' Generally, he said, publishing is a 'terrible business... a barely rational industry.' The cash-flow characteristics are unattractive. 'You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return
basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.'

Fresh talent and imagination, he concluded, are needed to keep publishing alive. As I say, a very smart fellow.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Making the right decision

Gosh, is it as long ago as that? I find, on looking it up, that it was in October 2005 that I reviewed Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, edited by Dylan Evans and Pierre Cruse. And my post attracted zero comments, I see. Perhaps because the book in question is a serious scientific work, not really intended for the layman, and and not easy to get a handle on.

In the introduction to Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, the editors say that the main theme of the book is that a consensus appears to be emerging among scientists, from a range of disciplines, that emotions are in fact (contrary to what was previously thought) vital to intelligent action.

This new attitude to emotion arises from a consideration of evolution. Those who study evolution are coming round to the view that emotions would not have continued to be a feature of human life unless they were actually helpful to survival.

Recent theories on emotion therefore contrast with the well established tradition in western society, which has almost universally assumed, since ancient times, that emotions are, at best, harmless luxuries, and at worst are outright obstacles to intelligent action. In other words, the received wisdom is that, when making a decision about anything important, you should try to do it in as unemotional a manner as possible.

Ever since reading Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, I have been meaning to consider its main theme from the point of view of a writer. If scientists are now suggesting that the presence of emotion can actually be helpful in making a good decision, how does this affect writers? When a writer makes a decision about any aspect of writing, is it a good idea for the writer to allow herself to be influenced by emotion, or not?

On reflection, I think that a question as broad as that is likely to lead to the response 'It all depends'. So let us try to be more precise, and consider one practical question, relating to a fairly big decision that is made by quite a large number of writers. We will consider this: Is a decision to write a novel best made with or without the involvement of emotion?

In chapter eight of Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, Matteo Mameli notes that, even though many scientists now accept that emotions are advantageous to 'ecological' rationality -- which is the ability of an organism to cope successfully with its environment -- it is still often thought that emotions remain destructive of 'practical' rationality, which is an organism's ability to make optimum decisions about how to act.

However, Mameli questions this latter assumption. Furthermore, he puts forward arguments which attempt to show that emotions are just as essential to practical rationality as they are in the ecological context.

In chapter ten, Daniel Nettle also considers the relationship between emotions and deliberative rationality. He comes to the conclusion that, under certain circumstances, being overly optimistic about one's chances of success, or degree of control over a situation, could be adaptive; that is to say, superior, in terms of behavioural decisions, to either pessimism or unbiased neutrality.

I am not concerned here to question Nettle's general conclusions -- not least, because I am not sufficiently familiar with the scientific evidence in this field. Instead, I want to draw apply what he has to say to the context of writing, and to consider whether his broad conclusions still hold good in relation to that one narrow field.

Nettle argues that, influenced by emotion, people systematically overestimate the likelihood of favourable outcomes of future contingencies, and underestimate the negative aspects of any given situation. However, he says, this doesn't matter very much, from the point of view of human evolution as a whole, as there is an asymmetric pattern of costs and benefits. In other words, if I am reading Nettle aright, people may make decisions for unsound (emotional) reasons, but, in general, when the outcome is favourable, the benefits are often great and far outweigh the costs.

Which is all very well. But it's not a lot of use when you and I come to consider specific questions, such as whether to spend several hundred hours writing a novel.

Let us look at Daniel Nettle's argument more closely. Nettle uses the available scientific evidence to show that, when people are questioned about their abilities, they systematically overestimate their own skills; this is called a self-enhancing bias. And you would not have to go far, I humbly suggest, to find examples of it among the writing community.

Secondly, individuals generally have an unjustified level of optimism about the future. They overestimate the likelihood of their having positive future-life events (e.g. a good job, their own home, achieving professional success). Once again, writers are a marvellous source for misplaced optimism.

Third, there is a well known phenomenon labelled the illusion of control. When engaged in games which are heavily influenced by chance, such as dice-rolling and lotteries, people overestimate their chances. In other contexts, they consistently overestimate the effectiveness of their own actions in controlling the flow of events.

Having these three positive illusions, as they are known, seems to be the population norm. So the plain fact of the matter is that, for most people, most of the time, emotions do play a major part in everyday decisions.

Following a great deal of work by academic researchers (the details need not detain us here, since we are laymen), any behavioural decision can be conceptualised as a game. The game has two outcomes: success and failure. And there are two courses of action: to play or not to play.

In writing terms, the question we have settled on is, Do we write a novel or not? Are we going to participate in this novel-writing game or not?

The outcome is either success or failure. What is success? Well, let us be modest and say that we will define success as simply achieving publication by one of the big six publishers (rather than having a smash-hit number one bestseller, which is a lot harder).

The player's optimal response is not to play when she would fail, and to play when she would succeed. Provided, of course, that the costs of playing do not exceed the benefits of winning.

Nettle analyses this situation in algebraic terms. If a player plays and succeeds, she takes the benefit of success (b). If she plays and fails, she accepts the cost of playing (c). Another important factor in the algebra is the probability of success (p).

I won't attempt to go into the algebra here, because I never was much good at that stuff, and besides, we don't need to. The point is that, to make a good decision, you need to have a very clear estimate of the values, or size, of the benefits, the cost, and the probability of success (b, c, and p).

If the benefits of success far outweigh the costs of failure, then the probability of success which is required to justify a rational decision to play is quite small. But where the costs are substantial, and the benefits are modest, and the probability of success is small, then the smart guys do not agree to play.

And this, I suggest, is where, in the writing context, emotion enters into the situation and can cause absolute havoc.

As we have seen, Nettle has summarised the scientific evidence to show that most people, most of the time, cannot think straight anyway. They suffer from the three positive illusions, described above. In the writing context, you and I are already well aware (if we're paying any attention at all) that the positive illusions are present among writers in abundance. And they are there, I suggest, because writers are awash with emotions.

We could spend some time debating (to little effect) whether ambition is an emotion, but we can agree, I think, that most writers are wildly ambitious. (For a discussion of ambition, see my post of 6 September 2006.) And it is surely the case that ambition is fuelled by emotion, or emotions in the plural, some of them not particularly attractive, such as envy, resentment, pride, a sense of inferiority, and even our old friend lust.

If we try, with a conscious effort of will, to step back from the situation and review the evidence objectively, what can we say about the factors b, c, and p in terms of our novel-writing decision?

In summary, based on over fifty years of writing experience, nearly three years of blogging, and a couple of books about writing, my own conclusions are as follows:

The costs are higher than many people think (over-optimism). Writing a novel is going to take several hundred hours of effort. Usually this will have to come from the writer's 'spare time' -- time which she would otherwise spend with family, friends, or developing her main career. The cost of failure is not merely that this time is 'wasted' -- it cannot be retrieved and re-allocated to a more fruitful purpose -- but there is also an emotional penalty attached, in terms of anger and resentment.

The benefits of success are also, I would suggest, more consistently overestimated in the writing world than in most others. Our definition of success was, you will recall, a fairly modest one: publication by a top firm, and little more. The amount of money, fame, and enhanced reputation which result from that are modest indeed. Ask anyone who's been there.

And then there is the probability of achieving success. This is slim. In my books The Truth about Writing and On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I have set out the painful facts about this probability in some detail.

Just to rub home the point: I share the general view of Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of Fooled by Randomness), namely that events in life are much more heavily influenced by chance than most of us care to believe. We are not saying, Taleb and I, that everything is a matter of luck. Far from it. Hard work, talent, perseverance, all these play a part. But they are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to guarantee favourable outcomes.

Thus, when it comes to writing fiction, not only is the probability of success low, but those who do achieve it will largely achieve it as a result of chance, and not as a direct and inevitable result of hard work, talent, and perseverance. In any estimate of the true probability of success in a writing context, this plain and simple fact (it is not a theory) needs to be taken into account.

So. Are we any nearer an answer to our question? Is it a good idea to allow emotions to influence the decision on whether to write a novel?

You must make up your own mind, but personally I think it is a very bad idea to allow emotions any role. And the wise decision, in my view, is not to play this particular game at all.

In which case, you may reasonably ask, why have I written so many novels, and why do I show signs of being likely to continue down that road?

Well, for one thing I don't claim to have been all that smart in my past career decisions. And for another, the decision will change dramatically if you either (i) vary the values of b, c, and p, or (ii) ask a different writing-related question.

For example, if you decide that, for you, the principal benefit of writing a novel is the sense of satisfaction which you obtain from that process, regardless of whether anyone actually gets to read it or not, that has an effect.

And suppose you ask one of more of the following questions:

Is it a good idea to write a non-fiction magazine article about a matter related to your main career (as an accountant or teacher, or whatever)?

Is it a good idea to enter a short story in a competition with a prize of £1,000?

Is it a good idea to publish a collection of poems through Lulu?

You don't need to do much thinking to conclude that, in some of these questions, the costs are markedly reduced, the probability of success may well increase, and the benefits, though different, could be substantial.


The real danger here is that writers will underestimate costs, overestimate benefits, and wildly misjudge the probability of success. For decisions about major projects, such as a novel, such misjudgements can reasonably be described as catastrophic. For relatively minor decisions, the consequences are relatively trivial, but still need to be taken seriously.

Overall, I take the view that the smart thinkers, the ones who are keen to protect their own mental and physical health, will not allow themselves to be unduly influenced by emotion in making decisions about writing.

Whether the decision is major or minor, the smart thinkers will spend a considerable amount of time collecting data relating to costs, benefits, and the probability of success. They will not believe everything they read in the newspapers.

On the whole (if asked, and even if I'm not) I would advise writers to keep all emotion in reserve, to be drawn on during the writing itself -- at least if you're in the fiction or drama business. Otherwise, I suggest that business and career decisions are best made in cold blood, on the basis of as much solid data as you can possibly assemble.

See also: An overview of emotion, 28 September 2006.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Oldie oddments

My son's Christmas present to me was a subscription to a UK monthly magazine called The Oldie. This, as its name suggests, is aimed at the grey market. It was founded in 1992 by Richard Ingrams, who edited Private Eye for 23 years.

The overall tone of the magazine reminds me somewhat of the once-famous but now deceased Punch; i.e., it's more than a little irreverent. The front cover carries a note: Warning -- contains innuendo. And on the top right corner of the cover is a mobile phone with a text message on it: No! I won't text my vote for every stupid sodding little thing.

So you get the idea. It's aimed at ever-so-slightly grumpy old folk.

The articles and cartoons inside are suitably entertaining for oldies, with a good deal of book coverage, but what really caught my eye was a page of adverts at the back. Headed 'Books and Publishing', it proved to be the route to all sorts of interesting writers and services.

The biggest ad is for the work of Eleanor Berry. Ms Berry turns out to be the 'youngest daughter of the late Lord Hartwell, former editor in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, and maternal grand-daughter of barrister and Lord Chancellor F.E Smith.' She also 'formed a controversial 23 year friendship with the late Mirror magnate Robert Maxwell.'

An interesting life then. Ms Berry, it seems, has been turning out books for some time: 16 of them, by my count. And there are lots of photographs of her with well known people, including several members of the Maxwell family. There is also a shot of her posed after 'one of her arrests in Marseilles.'

More brushes with the law are described in the anecdotes section. There you will find an account of her 'attractive personality traits and posing as a consultant psychiatrist and her ability to relieve Depression in others.'

Any idea you might have had that English eccentrics are always male is clearly mistaken.

And who, you may be wondering, publishes Eleanor Berry? The answer, at any rate in some of the instances that I've checked out, is the Book Guild.

The Book Guild is the UK firm which publishes, among others, Julian Fane. Here's what I said about it in connection with Mr Fane's work:

And what do we know about the Book Guild? Well, it's no great secret: the Book Guild does about 80 books a year and is one of those firms which makes most of its money from authors (or companies) who have written a respectable book, can't find a mainstream publisher, and are willing to pay for publication. Which is not to say that the Book Guild will publish just anything: far from it; they are looking for workmanlike, professional-standard books, but books which no big publisher is going to regard as sexy.

The next advert that caught my eye in the Oldie was one for the ancient firm of A.H. Stockwell.

Stockwell claims to have been in the publishing business for 100 years; and I certainly remember their ads in the Times Lit Supp in the 1950s. Stockwell, I would say, very definitely is a vanity publisher. They advertise for authors to approach them. Pay them the right money and they will put the book out. And it need not, I suspect, be of any great quality.

I can't remember ever having seen a Stockwell book in a bookshop or a library, and having gone through some of their current catalogue I can't say that I'm surprised. It's not that the work is bad -- some of it looks quite interesting -- but it's of strictly limited appeal. I am all in favour of people writing their memoirs, if only because they constitute a wonderful resource for future historians, but such books will find few readers outside the family.

Speaking of limited audiences for books, another ad in the Oldie comes from a firm which has faced the problem head on. The Lifelines Press is run by a couple of highly skilled and experienced professionals, Alan Wilkinson and Rebecca de Saintonge. What these two do is take a set of memoirs, or a collection of poems, and turn it into a book that really looks like a book -- well designed, well printed and properly bound.

These books are 'not for sale, but to be enjoyed as family heirlooms, creating something that writers will be proud to hand down to their children and grandchildren - a lasting testimony to lives worth remembering.'

This is a mighty clever idea, though I dare say it will cost a pretty penny. On the other hand, you can't take it with you.

Another biggish ad, so discreet that I almost overlooked it, is from the Biography Company. This runs a service very similar to that of Lifelines, in that they take a set of memoirs and turn it into a book for private distribution. In this case they will even write it for you.

And the cost? At the start it's impossible to say, they admit. But they do claim to be be clear about their charges. They charge a fixed rate for their time, and a mark-up on design and print costs. Which seems straightforward to me.

A few other ads:

Bibliophile Books is a company which seems to deal in remainders, but they do an excellent job of describing what they have to offer and making it look worth buying.

Amateur Authors is exactly what it says on the label: a bunch of amateur authors selling their work online. And it does, I fear, look a bit amateurish too. But who knows? There might be a hidden gem there.

Simon Watson is a man who has had a distinguished career in education, having been, among other things, headmaster of Hurstpierpoint School in Sussex. In retirement, he has embarked on a series of novels about a young man's life. The early volumes deal, not surprisingly, with schooldays, and more are intended to follow.

This is a self-published venture. The novel sequence, the author says, is not directly autobiographical. 'It is written to entertain, to bring to people's minds the conditions we lived in during the fifties and sixties, of what it was like to be a young person undergoing a middle-class upbringing and education. But essentially – like all novels – it is a fantasy.'

Should you wish to go the self-publishing route yourself, yet another firm in this field is York Publishing Services, which offers the usual range of services, including editing, printing, and so forth. YPS claims, however, that their customers include major publishers and university departments. They also offer distribution.

Finally, the Oldie offers an ad for another nostalgic publication. It's called SEx. This is a new magazine, published by Jamie Maclean, who also founded The Erotic Review. It offers fiction, commentary and 'serious stuff'. 'SEx,' says the Independent, 'leaves the smut behind.' So presumably it's classy stuff.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Small presses

Bluemoose Books

Bluemoose Books is an independent UK publisher which is 'the creation of Kevin Duffy and his wife Hetha. Kevin Duffy has been a publisher's rep for over 20 years and weeps when he enters the 3 for 2 zone that passes for bookstores these days.'

Bluemoose aims 'to give people a chance to read something different.' And they're willing to consider submissions.

Halfcut Books

Another indie publisher is Halfcut Books. Since they derive part of their funding (they say) from selling minors to the sex industry, and most of it from the Colombian drug-running cartel, they are understandably coy about where they're located.

'If the past 30 years of popular culture has taught us anything,' Halfcut say, 'it's the importance of going out and doing it yourself. Why knock on the doors of faceless shareholding organisations asking to be creatively castrated by committee?'

Well quite, quite. Anyway, one of Halfcut's latest books is Andrew Hook's Residue, a collection of 19 short stories.

Aqueduct Press

Yet another indie outfit, breaking out from an obscure niche labelled 'feminist science fiction for the demanding reader', is the Aqueduct Press. In particular, my attention was drawn by someone (who was it now?) to the work of Wendy Walker.

Sutton Publishing

Finally, Sutton Publishing. This firm only just (I suppose) fits into the category of a small press, but it was certainly never one of the big boys.

The firm was established in 1979, and found a market, of sorts, in dealing with local history books. In 2000 it was bought by Haynes publishing PLC, a company which had its own problems. Haynes once had a pretty solid business, publishing books which taught car owners how to do their own servicing. But then, as the years passed, cars became more and more sophisticated, until do-it-yourself servicing and fixing things became impossible. Hence Haynes looked around for new sources of profit.

Well, it turns out that Sutton wasn't the answer. Haynes have sold it. (Thanks to Clive Keeble for the link.) Last year, Sutton did £3m in turnover, but lost £199,000. The Haynes board says that it will 'continue to pursue new opportunities for expansion.'

PGW and all that

Meanwhile, if small presses in the UK think life is difficult, spare a thought for those US publishers caught up in the bankruptcy of a big US firm, AMS. AMS owned PGW, one of the main book distribution companies.

Says one commentator: 'The final impact of AMS filing bankruptcy is yet to be seen. What’s being predicted is that many small publishers will just disappear without a distributor that serves their needs, and also because many of the moneys they were owed will not be paid to them.'

If you wish to follow every spit and cough of this nasty situation, Radio Free PGW is the place to go.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wednesday wonderland

Hitherto unappreciated opportunities and risks

In his online notebook, Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that book reviews can be far more revealing of the reviewers than of the subject of the review. (To read Taleb's original thoughts, follow the link in this para and scroll down to 'Wittgenstein's Ruler'. Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Writers, says Taleb, can suffer from the contagion effect: subsequent reviews will be likely to echo the tone of previous ones. However, Taleb believes that the web and the long-tail mechanism will counteract that. And writers now have a far greater weapon with which to fight back than that wimpy letter to the editor.

'If someone goes unfairly ad hominem into someone else's background, you go into his,' Taleb suggests. So, end of the writer-as-sitting-duck syndrome.

Says Taleb: 'This is my style of deterrence: overreact to what you find intellectually unfair beyond the tit-for-tat, or ignore completely -- and randomly. I wrote 11 years ago a review of a review of a book by my friend Victor Niederhoffer, which I found unfair, misdirected, and uninformed. The review is dead but my second-order review still crops up! Writers of reviews do not remember their work; hurt authors do.'

Crumbs. Makes you think a bit, dunnit?

Dr Taleb is particularly displeased by the distortions, which have appeared in print, of his own ideas, ideas which were expressed in Fooled by Randomness, which was reviewed here, and discussed in a whole series of posts, in 2004.

From my own modest experience of applying Taleb's ideas to the book trade (see On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile), I can testify that people do tend to misread what you are saying. Or, to put it perhaps more tactfully, it is very difficult to ensure that the reader always knows what you mean. In fact, in the case of some readers, it's impossible.

By the way: Dr Taleb's new book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is due out from Random House in April.

Brief notes

Following yesterday's comment of mine that, when preparing a book for printing, things invariably go worng, my son Jon points me to a new book which tries to explain why it happens, at least when computers are involved. It's all in the software code.

Jon also points me to a report in the South Korean press about modern versions of old fairy tales. Like, Snow White taking an axe to those vertically challenged friends of hers, and Gretel getting a bit sniffy with Hansel. An expert is worried. 'Elementary school students can't always distinguish fantasy from reality,' he says. Some pensioners have the same problem.

Oops. Seems I was wrong yesterday. Mark Twain was hanging out in the Hotel Chelsea long before the Algonquin crowd started meeting.

Patricia or Patty Marx seems to be attracting a great deal of attention. There's quite a funny interview with her mother in the Huffington Post, though it's a bastard to read because of the way it's laid out. (Link from Buzz, Balls & Hype, by the way.) And there is a four-part TV interview with her on LX.TV. Patty, it seems, discusses the definition of chick lit, her new novel, the early days of Saturday Night Live, the book-writing process, and the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

In Saturdays' Times, Nicholas Clee noted that Conn Iggulden has pulled off an unprecedented feat. He has hardback books at the top of both the UK besteller lists for fiction (Wolf of the Plains) and non-fiction (The Dangerous Book for Boys). The Sunday Times carried an interview with him.

Leonora Klein has written a book about Mr Pierrepoint, mentioned here recently as an efficient hangman, by contrast with the clueless ones in Iraq.

Bookslut led the way to a really interesting piece by Pulitzer prizewinner Chris Hedges about the radical Christian right and despair in suburban America. This is the best analysis of the mood and temper of America that I've read for along time. But it does, of course, provide a whole new set of things to worry about, if you're the worrying type.

Cory Doctorow has some marvellous advice about blogging. If you're smart enough to understand it. I'm not. (Link from Locus.)

Finally, sales at W.H. Smith (which sells books, among other things) are down 6 per cent, year on year. Some clue as to why this may have happened was provided in Monday's Times. A woman tried to buy some cigarettes at W.H. Smith in Cambridge. The shop assistant, a Muslim, refused to sell them because it was against her religion. A company spokesman said the customer should have realised that the assistant was Muslim and would not sell tobacco.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tuesday again

The O.J. contract

One of the gems that emerged last week was the complete text of the contract between HarperCollins and Lorraine Brooke Associates, which was, allegedly, the dummy corporation set up to channel the money to O.J. Simpson. See Galleycat for the background.

The contract is contained within another document. If you follow this link you will find a 53-page amended complaint against Simpson, and the HC contract begins on page 16.

Now it's not often -- which means never before, in my case -- that you get to see a contract between a major publishing company and a celebrity (or the company which is a proxy for the sleb); in this case a ghost writer is involved as well.

The contract is dated 8 May 2006, and lists the amount of the payments due, and the date and other conditions for paying them.

The bit I like best is on page 37. Here Mr Simpson confirms that 'the Work shall be solely written by me with a writer.' Uh-huh.

If you consult page 32, you will find that the contract was signed by Mr Illegible from Lorraine Brooke Assoc., Judith Regan (who got fired), and HC boss lady Jane Friedman, who didn't get fired. In fact, she sitteth upon the right hand of God the Father Almighty, i.e. Rupert Murdoch. Let us hope, for her sake, that he wiggles his fingers occasionally.

Digital thoughts -- not entirely new

Publishers Lunch went to yet another digital conference. The quote that caught my eye: 'We have many case studies of books and authors that found success by sharing generously online, while we've yet to hear of a book that would have prospered if only they hadn't posted so much of it.'

And the essential nonsense of digital-rights management systems is exposed via a question: Why don't people care enough about literature to steal it when it's available online?

I put the problem another way a while back. When the kids on MySpace hear a music track, it sometimes makes them go Wow! And a hit is born. But how do novelists make readers go Wow!? That's the problem. Solve that one, encourage people to copy your work and send it to their friends -- rather than use all your energy and money to prevent people copying a file -- and you're halfway to a decent career. One which might even pay you as much money as driving a bus.

AuthorHouse sold

Publishers Lunch reports that the US self-publishing firm AuthorHouse has been sold to a private-equity firm, the owners of which presumably think they can make more money out of it than the present owners.

AuthorHouse is one of the firms listed in Mark Levine's The Fine Print as a publisher to avoid. He says that their contract contains 'nothing favorable to the author.'

However, the press release announcing the sale claims that 1 in 30 of the books published in the US last year was published by AuthorHouse, and the new owners 'were attracted to AuthorHouse because of the high-quality reviews the company receives from their authors, which has been the foundation for their impressive growth.' So somebody must be happy.

One-liners, more or less

The Hotel Chelsea is not the only NY hotel with literary connections. The Algonquin was there first. (Thanks to Paola for the link.) Robert Benchley, one of the Algonquin crowd, once admitted: 'It took me 15 years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.' P.S., the Chelsea offers an unusual form of room service. On Tuesdays.

Finn Harvor, at Conversations in the Book Trade, has been interviewing some publishers, including me.

Clive Keeble and Galleycat both noticed the Independent story about another autobiographer who, shall we say, embroidered upon nature. Deeply shocking. And the publisher was, um, HarperCollins.

Speaking of autobiographies, the Kathy O'Beirne fan club continues to vociferate via comments on this blog. The latest comes from Jodi. That can't be... No, couldn't possibly. She's got an e on the end.

And the Michael Barrymore anti-fan club does likewise.

In a comment on my piece about Lulu, Francis Ellen remarks that the only way to get a page to look right, in print, is to drench it in sweat. How true. Even then it won't come out right. My son Jon noticed that my latest, Lucius the Club, lost its page numbers somewhere between proof number three and proof number four. Don't ask me where they went. One of Word's great mysteries.

Glynn James is a web designer, which comes in handy when you're a self-publisher, and he also writes horror fiction.

Glynn put me on to a number of other horror/thriller writers who have had some success with publishing their own books. For example: Jeremy Robinson, author of The Didymus Contingency. This is one of the very few novels which show up in the Lulu top 100 when I dip into it.

Then there's David Moody, who hasn't even tried to publish his novels 'traditionally'. Instead he is 'making the most of advances in technology to deliver his books (as both paperbacks and ebooks) to the widest possible audience at the lowest possible price.'

And finally J.L. Bourne. The horror genre is not one that interests me, but that there is a core of fans is not to be doubted.

If you don't like horror fiction either, how about some erotic mediaeval German poetry? In modern translation, of course. Can't have you struggling mit Deutsch. Try Frauenlob's Song of Songs.

Much debate at the Publishing Contrarian about the role and survival of independent bookshops. Essential reading if you're running one, or thinking of it, or like to buy from them.

Dr Blogstein reports that the disgraced California pastor, Randall 'Father Felony' Radic, has signed a deal with Ephemera Bound publishers to publish his memoir, The Sound of Meat. The book will be released on June 30, 2007.

Kate Allan has interviewed Roger Morris, a Macmillan New Writing Author, about his experience of marketing his novel. It may help, it seems, to be 'a shameless self-promoter'.

Ian Hocking, author of Deja Vu, has signed with the UK's John Jarrold Literary Agency. Another recent client of Jarrold's is Simon Haynes, author of the Hal Spacejock series.

Monday, January 22, 2007

World goes mad -- official

In April last year I published a novel called How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous. You can download a free copy of it, if you wish.

A few months later, I came across a novel by an American, Daniel Scott Buck, entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. I reviewed it on 31 August 2006.

Both these novels were about reality TV. Both novels imagined a TV show which offered extreme forms of entertainment. In my case, it was a show which led up to a man with AIDS having unprotected sexual intercourse with a woman who didn't have AIDS, live on late-night TV, in return for a prize of a million pounds. In Mr Buck's novel, a young woman who is desperate for fame and attention falls in with a TV 'psychotherapist' who specialises in unearthing 'repressed memories' of ever-more violent and dramatic instances of child abuse, satanic murders, and so forth.

Mr Buck and I both portrayed a world in which the media -- newspapers and television particularly -- would seize upon these sensationalist reality-TV shows and would exploit them for their own ends. Given a sufficiently violent, sexual, and controversial TV starting-point, we argued, a media firestorm would ensue.

Well, the events of last week, in the UK, proved that Mr Buck and I were partly right and partly wrong.

We were dead right in predicting that, for reasons of their own, the media are just standing there with their tongues hanging out, waiting for someone to throw a juicy titbit their way. But we badly misjudged how sensational the trigger needed to be. We over-egged our puddings. It turns out, in reality, that the reality-TV show which kicks off a media firestorm need not be all that sensational at all. It can be entirely trivial and commonplace.

There is running, in the UK at present, a TV show called Celebrity Big Brother. Every year or so, Channel 4 gathers together 12 or 15 celebrities -- so called -- locks them up in a purpose-built house, without any contact with the outside world, and allows them to interact. Every few days, the public gets to vote on who should leave and who should stay. In due course, a winner emerges.

Last week, during the course of the current Big Brother run, two of the house inmates had a row. The two women concerned were Jade Goody (a Brit) and a Bollywood film star called Shilpa Shetty.

The row developed over the right number of Oxo cubes to use when cooking a meal. (Remember please that I am not making any of this up.) Jade, who has a very big mouth, proceeded to yell abuse at Shilpa for some time, and Shilpa stood up for herself.

As rows go, this was minor-league stuff. It was a shouting match, of the kind that you can hear any time on a soap opera. But, because this wasn't carefully scripted soap opera, the row went on longer and was messier. There was physical contact between the two ladies: no cat fight, no scratching, biting, hair-pulling, rolling on the floor. And nobody ran to the knife drawer and emerged with the intent of performing amateur surgery.

So far so negligible. However, someone, somewhere, seems to have decided that Jade's yelling constituted racist abuse and bullying. And both of these words, racist and bullying, are serious politically (in)correct no-nos.

Before you could say Just a minute girls, the UK media went mad. And I mean that literally. Television stations, radio programmes and newspapers all abandoned whatever claims they might have had to rationality, and spread themselves, in all directions, with reports, comments, interviews, photos, vox pop, opinion polls, you name it, they had it.

Unless you have lived in the UK these last few days, you cannot really understand how the nation seemed to stop dead and discuss this issue and nothing else.

In truth, the whole thing was a fuss about nothing. You and I, in two or three minutes, could come up with quite a list of racially insulting remarks, for the dusky-hued to hurl at pinko-greys, and vice versa. None of those was heard on Big Brother. As for bullying: you can see worse on any school playground. All that took place was a standard, run-of-the-mill shouting match, of the kind that gets neighbours banging on the walls in every city in the world, seven days a week.

But the media, as I say, went mad over it. Here are a few examples of the madness.

Mr Blair, our Prime Minister, was asked a question about the Big Brother row in the House of Commons. Naturally he took the matter seriously. He declared solemnly that we must combat racism wherever and whenever it occurs.

Our Prime Minister in waiting, Gordon Brown, was on a formal trip to India last week, presumably to discuss matters of mutual benefit to that country and the UK. But, because Shilpa Shetty is Indian, the Indian media had gone just as barmy as the UK lot. So instead of talking about trade, he found himself being constantly interviewed by the press, and questioned about who should be kicked out of the BB house first, Jade or Shilpa.

You really couldn't make this stuff up. I know, because I tried. So did Mr Buck. We did our best, but we were defeated by reality itself. The modern media go far beyond anything that any novelist might dream up.

Meanwhile.... Yes, there is a meanwhile.

Meanwhile, there were some real stories developing, news stories which might actually mean something, and which have some real impact upon the welfare of the nation. These were almost buried under an avalanche of rubbish.

There was, for instance, the little matter of the war in Iraq. But that's so boring, isn't it? Old hat. Heard it all before. No one will tune in for that.

But there is also, quietly ticking away in the corner, a metaphorical time bomb.

In today's Times, William Rees Mogg sums it all up rather well. In an article entitled 'The last days of the great driveller -- the scandal that threatens to engulf Blair', he points out that, for some time now, the police have been investigating three possible criminal offences that may have been committed in relation to Labour Party fundraising. Two people who work very closely with Tony Blair have been arrested: Lord Levy and Ruth Turner. They have not yet been charged, but, judging by the fierce attacks which have been launched on the police by friends of no 10 Downing Street, there is evidently cause for panic in the Prime Minister's office.

This, I think you will agree, is a story of some importance in the real world. But it was very nearly lost in last week's uproar. The word Watergate is beginning to be heard in the land, because what may have gone badly wrong is not so much the original crime (if there was one) as the attempt to cover up what happened (via lies and the destruction of evidence). Covering things up can amount to perverting the course of justice, which is a serious charge in the UK. It did for Jeffrey Archer.

The UK media madness was epitomised, for me, by a TV soundbite from Tessa Jowell.

Tessa Jowell is Tony Blair's Culture Secretary (whatever that means), and is a member of the Cabinet. She is also the husband of a man who has faced a long-running police enquiry into allegations of bribery in Italy, and she still has a number of questions to answer about her own conduct. She is known in some disrespectful quarters as Sign-anything Tessa, or Mrs Mortgage. Smart enough, it seems, to be a cabinet minister, but not smart enough to understand her husband's complicated financial dealings.

Just think how Ms Jowell must have felt when she opened her front door last week and found that the street was packed with cameras and sound men. Oh my God, she must have thought. Has the Prime Minister been arrested? Are there new revelations in Italy?

But no. No, all the media wanted to know was how she felt about Big Brother.

Well, that was easy. 'Disgusting,' she snapped. 'Racist and disgusting.'

And then she got into her Cabinet Minister's car and went off to her Cabinet Minister's office. And as she went, she doubtless wiped the sweat off her brow, heaved a great sigh of relief, and said, 'Phew. Fooled 'em again. Thank you, Channel 4.'

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday phish

Being taken for granted

Catherine Czerkawska blogs, occasionally, about the joys of writing for a living, and on Tuesday she did a piece about being asked to perform, as it were, for free -- something which, as she sensibly points out, is not expected of plumbers or dentists.

This story reminds me of a similar instance from the 1950s, I think. Ed Murrow used to do a show about people's homes (as I recall) on prime-time NBC or whatever. One of the famous names who was approached to appear was the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. What was the fee, she asked. No fee, they said; people do it for the publicity. Mahalia said if there was no fee, there was no show. They paid.

Catherine's new book, God's Islanders, a history of the people of Gigha, was published by Birlinn, just before Christmas.

Atlas shrugged again

A correspondent asks me how I can expect to be taken seriously if I have never heard of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (see Tuesday). Well yes; yes indeed.

Fifty years ago, a gloomy schoolmaster remarked to me, 'You know, Allen, the number of books you haven't read is really rather alarming.' Alas, it was true then, and 'tis true now.

Meanwhile, Penguin UK are much better informed than I am. They are bringing out a new edition of the book on 22 February. Here's the email blurb, with a few words added by me so that I can understand it:

Seen as the most influential book for Americans after the Bible, and highly rated by Alan Greenspan, Atlas Shrugged is tremendous in scope. First published in 1947, [it] dramatises Ayn Rand's controversial philosophy of Objectivism, which champions competition, creativity and human greatness, and [is an] uncompromising defence of self-interest as the engine of progress. An intellectual mystery story integrating ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics and sex, this novel presents an astounding panorama of human life. Atlas Shrugged is peopled by larger than life heroes and villains and charged with questions of good and evil.
How could I have missed it? (Don't answer that.)

Woolworths? Books?

Clive Keeble is one of many who have noted, with some alarm, that Woolworths, once but no longer an enormously successful retailer, has bought Bertram, a leading UK book wholesaler. Who, Clive enquires, wants to trust a failing mega-store's wholesale outlet arm to be supplying independent bookshops with some of their stock? Not he, evidently.

The financial press wasn't too impressed either. See Charles Pretzlik in the FT, and Richard Ratner has identified Woolworths as another firm (along with HMV/Waterstone's) in the living dead category.

For further discussion of this issue, see the comments on Richard Charkin's blog.

Another way to use Lulu

Suppose, just suppose, you were a staff member on a leading newspaper. And suppose you'd written a novel. In the old days, of course, you wouldn't have had much trouble in getting your paper to serialise it. (See my piece on the Old Pals Act of 1898.) But now you can go one better.

Now you can write the book, do it through Lulu, and get your paper to serialise it online, with a link to Lulu. Profits to shared.

See, for example, what David Hilzenrath is up to, in the Washington Post, with Jezebel's Tomb, his 'biblical mystery, reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code'. (Link from Publishers Lunch.)

The Washington Post notes that 'newspaper Web sites increasingly are publishing content not traditionally thought of as journalism in an attempt to lure more users, such as hosting discussion groups and posting pictures of readers' children.' Ahh... In that nice?

Just in case you're wondering, no, Hilzenrath couldn't get Jezebel's Tomb published by a mainstream publisher. It says so, right there in the WP.

After he was turned down by publishers repeatedly in 2005, "a light bulb went on," said Hilzenrath, 41, a 19-year Post veteran. "There's a better way: Use the power of the Web for promotion and the power of on-demand publishing to reduce the upfront cost," he said.
Makes you think a bit, eh what?

Amazon shorts

A commenter on my short story (or whatever) Lucius the Club (see Wednesday) advises me to try Amazon Shorts next time. I'd never heard of this (ignorance again), so I took a look.

Well, ahem, I'm not at all sure I'd get in there, frankly. In fact I'm pretty sure I wouldn't. But at least it tells you how to apply. Which is nice. And it's certainly something which should be considered by those with energy, ambition, and youth.

The Samplist

Francis Ellen's The Samplist (reviewed here on 9 October 2006) is still attracting attention two years after publication. Here's the latest review, by Ian Hocking in Spike magazine.

Be aware, however, that not all the books on sampling which are listed below the review are talking about the same thing as Francis Ellen. But that's not the reviewer's fault, I'm sure.

Save Greenway

Agatha Christie's old home in Devon, Greenway, now belongs to the National Trust, and they need funds to keep it in good order. No doubt her publishers are helping. Not to mention Chorion, who currently control the Christie brand name.

Get Writing

If you live anywhere near St Alban's, England, you might like to know about a writing conference on 17 February.

Another party

Tindal Street must think highly of Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, because they're having a launch party in London as well as the one in Birmingham (mentioned Tuesday). The London do is on Monday 12th February, 7-9 pm, at Crockatt & Powell Booksellers, 119 Lower Marsh, London SE1 7AE (nearest tube: Waterloo).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lucius and Lulu -- part 2

Yesterday, Lucius; today, Lulu.


Today's post, like yesterday's, divides into two parts. First, for the chronometrically challenged, my conclusions from an experiment in publishing a short book through the services of, and then a discussion of some of the practical details of using those services.


If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that, for the past four years, Lulu has been offering a publishing service to authors. Most people would call it self-publishing, but, depending on the deal you choose, you may end up, at least officially, being 'published by Lulu'. But all it amounts to really is a means of getting your book into print form very cheaply.

For a description of the range of services that Lulu offers (which includes the ability to post videos, images, and recordings) see the May 2006 interview with Lulu officer Stephen Fraser.

Most people who read this post will, I suspect, be interested, if only vaguely, in using Lulu to publish their novel. And the first conclusion I have to offer is that, if you hope to make serious money out of the operation, it isn't going to work.

If your purpose is solely to be able to hold your book in your hand, in paperback or hardback form, then Lulu is an unrivalled bargain: truly one of the great inventions and a total revolution in print/publishing facilities. But don't expect to be able to sell significant quantities of your novel to the general public.

Why not? Well, because you're faced with the old-as-time problem. It's always been dead easy to get a book into print, if you had the odd £10,000 or $20,000 to spare. Now you can do it for next to nothing, but the problem has always been getting the book known and persuading people to buy it.

As far as Lulu is concerned, you can, if you wish, buy a very cheap package which will ensure that your book is listed on various 'books in print' databases, and is offered for sale by online retailers. But the evidence so far (see the comments on my piece about Ron Morgans' book) suggests that, by the time Amazon and the likes have added their desired profit to the Lulu cost of production, the price of your paperback novel will be about twice what it's listed for on Lulu, and well above what normal people are prepared to pay.

That wouldn't matter much if people (a) knew about it, (b) wanted it, and (c) just bought it from Lulu, rather than Amazon. But who's going to find it on Lulu? Almost no one.

So forget any ideas of bestsellerdom via that route.

Which is not to say, however, that you can't use Lulu as a very good means of making some modest reputation for yourself and your book. For an example, study the case of Henry Baum. First mentioned here on 14 March 2006, he went on to win the grand prize ($1,000) at the 2006 Hollywood Book Festival, and this got him on to the books of literary agent Frank Weimann.

If you are going to publish a novel through Lulu, your best plan, I suggest, is to think of the operation, from the very beginning, as a means of producing a calling-card. In the television/film world, most agents advise writers to produce a script which is perfectly capable of being produced, in the sense that it is professionally constructed, but which no one seriously expects to be produced. Its purpose is to prove to those who commission scripts that you are capable of doing the job.

A similar approach is, I think, worth adopting with novels.

So, if Lulu is not totally perfect as a vehicle for selling a novel in large numbers, what is it good for?

Well, suppose you are a church warden.Twenty years ago, a member of the congregation produced a little booklet, giving a history of the church. A thousand copies were printed, they've sold, on average, at the rate of one copy a week, and now you're down to the last few. What to do?

What to do, I suggest, is produce a new improved version and put it through Lulu. For a booklet, of say, 24 pages, with a nice glossy cover, you don't pay Lulu a penny until you need to order some copies. And, if you can get the same print-in-small numbers, as-and-when-required facility from a local printer, I salute your negotiating skills. I don't think you will be able to do that.

You order 20 copies of your church history booklet from Lulu, and sell them in one place: the church. When you notice a mistake in the text, which you will, you can correct it, at zero cost, before you run off the next 20.

Similarly, let's suppose you're a poet. Traditionally, poets have published their work in chapbook (booklet) form. And in past decades they would have had to go to a local printer for a short run. Which costs money. Lulu, by contrast, charges no set-up fee at all. You order (and pay for) one copy to check that it looks OK, and then you order more as you need them. You can give them away to your friends, sell them when you've given a poetry reading, place them in local libraries, and so forth. It's a very, very low-cost exercise.

There are many other possibilities. Suppose, for instance, it's Granny's golden wedding, and you want to give her, and perhaps four other members of the family, a hardback book filled with photographs of fifty years of family life. This is going to be of no real interest to anyone other than the four or five recipients. But you can put it together on Lulu, again for no cost except the price of the book. A heavily illustrated hardback might well cost somewhere between £25 and £50 a copy, depending how long it was; but if it's a golden wedding, once in a lifetime thing, who cares?

Final note. I am firmly of the opinion that Lulu works best with non-fiction rather than fiction. And if you really have some practical, hands-on, how-to-do-it stuff that you're an expert on (such as Luciferian witchcraft, or developing web services with Apache Axis), you might actually make a bit of money, if you can get your book enough publicity.

Study the Lulu top 100 sellers. The list changes pretty rapidly, indicating that most books don't sell very many copies, but you will rarely see a novel on the list.

In short, the Lulu enterprise is one of the very great initiatives of the 21st century, and I take my hat off to its founder, Bob Young.


So much for my conclusions, which I had hoped would be succinct, but turned out not to be. Now to consider the question: How easy is it to use Lulu?

The honest answer is, not nearly as easy as Lulu claims. Because it's all done on computers. And, as you know by now, computers are 'easy' to use -- provided you've done a three-year degree course in computing, and have also had a day's training on three or four page-layout programs and the like. However, if I can make a fist of it, most people should be able to do the same.

My suggestion is that, before you do a whole book-length project, you should have a trial run with a shorter document. Either a short story, or an essay, or something, just to get the feel of the procedures.

In my own case, as I explained yesterday, I used a newly written short story called Lucius the Club.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, if you're using Norton antivirus software, as I am, you will almost certainly need to turn it off while you're using Lulu. I definitely had to. If you don't do that, quite a few important links won't work. For instance, until I worked out this manoeuvre, I couldn't watch the demo videos on how to do things, couldn't see the font samples, couldn't view the document after conversion to PDF, and so forth.

And the next thing to say is that, before beginning even the simplest test, it would be a good idea to read up as much about the procedures as you have patience and time for. Lulu itself publishes a couple of free books about using the system: the one by Danny Snow is quite useful, but there are others. In Lulu search, enter publishing and Lulu and you will get quite a few, some of which are not free.

You then need to prepare your text in Word, or some other accepted format. You will need to have decided, in advance, what size book you are going to be printing in: I chose 6" x 9", which in Europe is slightly bigger in metric.

Lulu offers some templates in Word for the various sizes, and you could use one of those. That's certainly the simplest way. But I chose my own layout. It was based, if you really want to know, on one used by Villard de Honnecourt in a manuscript of c. 1280; this gives margins -- spine, top, edge, and foot -- in the ratio 2:3:4:6. Why did I do that? Because I like the rather strange appearance, and because I wanted to see if Lulu could cope with it. And it can.

You should also use one of the fonts which Lulu states that it can handle; though in practice you may find that it can also handle fonts which are not listed. But not all, as I discovered.

The publishing process consists of five stages. At each of these you need to fill in certain types of information. At first, if you're anything like me, you will find some of this far from straightforward, but the more often you do it the easier it becomes.

An early stage, which is quite important, is the conversion of the text file to a PDF. If you're an experienced designer, and if you have the right software, you can produce a PDF yourself, according to the required specs. In my case, I just laid it all out in Word and clicked the button for Lulu to do a conversion.

This, after a few failed experiments, works OK. In any case you can see the result on screen, and can go back and change things if they don't look right. In my case I had to have six attempts before I was satisfied, which is why I suggest a small experiment before tackling a major project.

Another important stage is creating the booklet's cover. Again, if you're an expert graphic designer, you can design your own cover and upload it as a PDF. For my experiment, I took advantage of the Lulu gallery of ready-made covers, and simply chose one which looked appropriate. You then get to choose from a list of fonts, and specify the size of type, for the wording of the title and the name of the author on the front cover. You also have the option of adding text and a photo to the back cover.

Initially, it is probably best not to publish your book to the whole world until you have had at least one proof copy and checked it carefully. And in fact you may never need to publish it to the whole world, if it's a short history of your church, as described above.

You are also required to price your work. There will be a basic production cost, which in my view is not unreasonable. For my 48-page, saddle-stitched Lucius the Club, the price (at current exchange rates) is £3.02. I could, if I wished, add some 'profit' to that, say £1. If I did, Lulu would take 20p as their profit. But you don't have to do that, and in the case of Lucius the Club I didn't, so you can actually buy the booklet cum chapbook at cost. Why so? Well, not because I'm a saint, but because I don't seriously expect to sell more than 4 or 5 copies in a year, if that, and for sales of that volume adding 'profit' is pointless.

What you get, at the end of the day, is a book printed on a Docutech machine, on 80 or 90 gsm paper, with a pretty decent (in my opinion) glossy card cover (full colour, laminated, 240 gsm). It's never going to be the equal of a traditionally printed hardback, with sewn sections and top quality paper. But it is every bit the equal of many a trade paperback.

Further reading there is in abundance. But you could start with these:

Chris Davis on publishing with Lulu, part I
Chris Davis part II
Chris Davis part III
Philipp Lenssen
Deborah Woehr

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lucius and Lulu -- part 1

Today, Lucius; tomorrow, Lulu.


Today's subject matter, such as it is, divides into two parts. First, a discussion of differing approaches to the business of writing fiction; and then a discussion of the origin of ideas for stories.


There are, it seems to me, certain analogies between flower arranging and writing fiction.

By flower arranging, I mean something much more elaborate than just sticking a few daffodils in a vase. I'm talking about floral displays which may vary in size from a few inches across to ten feet tall, but which in either case require a great deal of thought, planning, and may involve more than one person to actually carry them out.

In England, and, I gather, in many other parts of the world, flower arranging is a much favoured hobby, pastime, interest -- call it what you will. Even small towns tend to have a flower-arranging club, which meets regularly to watch demonstrations, undertake practice classes, and so forth.

What may well have escaped your notice is that flower arranging is a highly competitive activity, with regular competitions held at local, regional, and national level. (This year's national show is in Harrogate, in June.)

This competitive side to flower arranging may, I think, be compared with professional, trade publishing. It is a filtering process in which, theoretically at any rate, only the best practitioners rise to the top and achieve recognition.

But there is a much more relaxed side to flower arranging. For instance, every once in a while Mrs GOB does a flower arrangement which stands on a table by the front door. Why does she do this?

There are, I think, two reasons. First, she enjoys the actual process of designing the arrangement, handling the flowers, and putting it all together. And second, she likes to look at it as she goes up and down the stairs. Occasionally a visitor (invariably female) will comment on the arrangement. But that's not why it's there: it's there strictly for Mrs GOB's personal satisfaction.

Rather late in life, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to approach the writing of fiction in precisely the same spirit. That is to say, I have decided that it is possible for me (and other people) to write a story without bothering too much (or at all) whether anyone will read it, but just for the satisfaction of doing it.

I was slow, and somewhat reluctant, to come to this conclusion. But I have considered it possible, in theory, for some time. (See, for instance, the final section of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.) And now, at least once, I've done it.

The title of the story which I have recently written on arrangement-by-the-front-door lines is Lucius the Club.

As is my wont, these days, I have made the story available as a free pdf file, and you can download it and read it if you wish. But before you do so, please be aware that the story is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons licence, details of which are given at the end of the story. What this means is that you can do more or less anything that you like with it -- print it out, copy it, send it to a friend, and so forth. I'd prefer that you didn't make a film out of it (ha ha ha; little joke) without asking me, but apart from that, feel free.

'Feel free' includes, of course, feeling free not to bother reading the thing at all. Because, as I said earlier, that wasn't really why I wrote it.

Which leads me on to my second topic for discussion: namely, where stories come from.

The origins of stories

I am not a great Stephen King admirer, but I read his book On Writing with some interest, and I have also read some of his short stories. It is, I believe, in the introduction to his most recent short-story collection that he makes some observations about the source of fictional ideas.

As I recall, King describes becoming aware one day of a vision in his head. What he could see was a scene in which a man was pouring gold coins down a drain. Who this man was, and why he was pouring gold coins down a drain, he had no idea; and he couldn't even guess why the image had entered his head (though I dare say the Freudians could give him an explanation).

King goes on to argue that short stories exist independently of the writer. They exist entire, and complete in themselves. What happens when a writer gets an idea is that the writer is seeing, so to speak, one small part of an object sticking out of the ground. What the writer has to do is dig the story out, and expose it in full. It may turn out to be a dead body, or an abandoned motor car, or an old saucepan, or whatever; but it's there, waiting to be uncovered.

This is a rather different concept, and much more fanciful, I may say, from the more usual one, which has the writer taking an incident from life and developing it, by a conscious act of will, into a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end.

And what of Lucius the Club? Where did that story come from? Did I have to dig it up, or did I have to shape it from a pile of clay?

Both, I think is the answer.

In the first place, I had in the back of my mind, for several years, the idea of writing a story about a woman in a wheelchair. I don't know precisely why I had that idea, but it may well have been because I once knew a young female student who was confined to a wheelchair.

My original story idea was that Clarrie, as she was called, would a woman of about sixty, and, far from being a pathetic, handicapped creature, she would be a woman with a very powerful personality and willpower by the bucketful. I imagined her as having run a brothel, or some illegal gambling club perhaps, and she would be telling her story, in the first person, to a corrupt policeman who had just entered the district and, like his predecessors, would be doing a deal with Clarrie to enable her to continue her illegal activities.

Above all, Clarrie would relate the story of how, as a young woman, someone tried to push her around, and make her take her place in the natural order of things, that place being, since she was young, female, and handicapped, at the bottom. But Clarrie wasn't having any of that, so she murdered the man with a shotgun. After which she was respected, and no one gave her any serious trouble. And she was never, of course, convicted of the crime.

This idea was in the back of my head, and indeed in my files, bits of it written out, for several years. But then, eventually, it kind of came to the surface and demanded, as stories occasionally do, to be written.

Before writing it, however, I had to do a bit more thinking, to flesh the story out. At least once in my life I have written a short story with nothing further to go on than the first line. I just sat down, typed the first line, and went on from there until it was finished, in one session. But that is not the way I prefer to work.

My normal method of working is to plan a story, or a book, in great detail -- perhaps excessive detail. So I didn't rush to start work on Clarrie. Instead, for some months, I thought about it while I was shaving, or washing up. And gradually, for reasons best known to herself, Clarrie changed sexes. She became a man. A man who was also crippled, but not in a wheelchair, and his name was Lucius.

Lucius was also a man who had committed a murder when young, and got away with it. He used a shotgun too. And, although he was a highly respectable member of the community, his family background would be more than a little dubious.

One thing led to another, and, being a more commercial than literary writer by instinct, I found it necessary to introduce certain twists and turns in the plot. Yes, this is all very immature and juvenile, I know. Persons of taste and distinction rather look down on plots and surprises and revelations, and all like that. But this story was written for me, and I like my stories to be more than just snapshots.

Even when it was done, I found that the damn thing still gave me trouble. It required a lot of tweaking. But now it's as finished as it is ever going to be.

What I have ended up with is a story which is neither fish nor fowl. It isn't really a short story, because it's about 10,500 words in length. Neither is it really a novella, which is normally reckoned, depending on who you believe, to be between 15,000 and 30,000 words. So it is, in any case, pretty well unpublishable through orthodox channels.

If you're really clued up on the crime-fiction market, however, you will know that there ar two crime magazines in the world which might publish a story of that length: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. So why didn't I submit it to them?

Well, because I couldn't be arsed, basically. For one thing, it is statistically extremely improbable that either magazine would accept the story (see my comments of 20 September 2004); and for another, even if they accepted it, I would probably have to wait a year to see it in print. And in any case, both the magazines mentioned are rarely available in the UK; you certainly never see them in Wiltshire. So why would I bother?

No, I thought. Just do it, stick it on the web, and leave it at that. And here's the link again, just in case you want it.

I did, however, do one further thing with the story. I have for some time been watching with interest the number of people who have published their work through So I decided that I would publish Lucius the Club as a chapbook, through Lulu, just to see how easy or difficult it is to use Lulu, and what the snags and advantages are.

I do not, not even in my wildest dreams, imagine that more than 3 people, in any given year, are going to browse through Lulu, think Oh! that looks interesting, and buy it. But I did want to see how Lulu works.

But for comments on that, come back tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tuesday tootlings

John Galt has admirers

On 6 January, the Financial Times published an article by Charles Pretzlik in which he described the fifty-year history of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. The novel is apparently about an engineer, John Galt, who 'stopped the motor of the world by leading successful businessmen on strike against the new elite of collectivist free-loaders.'

According to Pretzlik, and I have no reason to doubt him, Atlas Shrugged is easily the most successful business book ever. Six million copies have been sold in English since 1957. However, he described reading the book as a joyless experience.

The following week, two readers wrote in to protect Ayn Rand's reputation. How could the book be so popular, they not unreasonably asked, if it was really as tedious as Pretzlik claimed?

According to one correspondent, the novel's 'picture of self-serving government charlatans squashing economic and political freedom through dodgy moralistic spin is, I am afraid, entirely up to date and right on the button.'

As far as I can remember, I'd never previously heard of the book.

Churchill a doubtful ally?

Last Saturday's Financial Times also suggests that George Bush is a big fan of Winston Churchill. The same article tells us that Churchill was cited, approvingly, when Senator Christopher Dodd was discussing 'the new way forward in Iraq'.

Well, um, yes, possibly. But, in the context of the war on terror, there is a bit of a problem with old Winston. You see, during world war II, he set up an organisation called the SOE, the purpose of which was to 'set Europe ablaze'.

As Matthew Carr said in a recent book review:

What is not in dispute is that the British government engaged in a form of warfare that it had previously regarded as savage, uncivilised and "terrorist"....

The military historian John Keegan later claimed that SOE "shamed Britain".... Had Germany won the war, SOE and its allies would have been consigned to the dustbin of history as terrorists and bandits. Instead the resistance was seen as an exemplary patriotic enterprise, which would be cited as a model by many terrorist organisations in the post-war era..... It is worth remembering once again that the distinction between hero and terrorist is often determined not so much by the methods used, but by who wins.

This is not, perhaps a simple matter to explain to explain to the American electorate. Sir Charles Hambro once remarked that it was not good for democracies to know what their governments did in times of war.

Caitlin Moran can write

I don't know about you, but I am always pleased when I come across someone who can just plain write, whatever their subject. The good writer can make anything interesting, especially if they inject a vein of humour. Try Caitlin Moran, who writes regularly for the Times.

Koopa coup

The Times yesterday reported, in rather clunky prose, that 'the pop-punk band Koopa became the first group not to have been signed by a record label to have a Top 40 hit, thanks to new rules governing internet music sales. The single, Blag, Steal & Borrow, entered the chart at No 31 on download sales alone, according to the Official UK Charts Company.'

What does this signify for the book world? Does it mean that a self-published novel will soon kick the ass of Richard and Judy's latest fave? No, frankly. But it's a portent, of sorts.

Value for money

Maretha Davel Joubert kindly reports that my own free pdf on The Truth about Writing is better value than some other chap's book at $47 -- that's $47 if you sign up before midnight. It's $99 tomorrow. So act now. And remember, you found it here.

Most wanted and most expensive

Abebooks has published further data on the books most in demand last year. Following the recent list of the top ten most requested books in the UK, we now have one for the American market. And we also have a list of the most expensive books sold through Abebooks last year. You might have expected these to be all very old, incunables perhaps, but they're not.


Tim W. Brown has created a web site about Fiction Collective 2. On it, Mr Brown tells us that, through researching FC2's recent tax records, grant applications and other documents, plus conducting interviews with a number of individuals, he has discovered that FC2 collects, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funding from arts granting agencies and universities, a significant portion of which is used to publish the books of FC2's own principals and board members.

I haven't read enough of the content to form a firm conclusion about the rights and wrongs of the matters which he refers to, but the design and general approach of the web site are in themselves remarkable, and certainly give rise to the expectation that the creator will know what he's talking about.

It seems that the theme of potential conflict of interest within the publishing community is one that Mr Brown has been exploring for some time; and, what's more, in the elegant manner of the eighteenth-century pamphleteer. So this is worth looking at for the style alone.

For the record, I am personally one hundred per cent opposed to subsidy of the arts, from the public purse, in any form whatsoever. (Exceptions occur in education.) But am I so firm in upholding this principle that I will never go to see, for instance, state-sponsored ballet? No, I am not. If I took that view I would hardly ever see or read anything, because, in the UK at least, the dead hand of government is everywhere, and is inescapable.

Free drinkie?

Tindal Press is launching What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday 24 January in Birmingham, England. If you ask nicely they'll probably let you in. Tel. 0121 773 8157.


Nadine Laman tells me that, despite Simon and Schuster being involved, she is profoundly unimpressed by the terms offered by a sort of new and improved version of the Sobol prize (which collapsed, as you may recall, under the weight of overwhelming apathy and suspicion).

Personally, as I said on 11 December, I am unkeen on all such competitive enterprises, but they may suit some people.

Speaking of prizes, the Guardian claims that agents are now demanding from publishers, in the case of some powerful writers, that the publisher guarantee that the book under discussion will be submitted for, say, the Booker or whatever. Shock, horror and scandal. Agents looking after their clients' interests, indeed. Whatever next? (Link from

Agatha Christie

Following my piece about Colin Watson's Snobbery with Violence, Sophie Masson points me to her essay on Agatha Christie, which appeared on Norman Geras's Normblog.

Sophie's case is that, while Agatha's huge sales are well known, her skills as a writer are often underestimated. I agree. Which is not to say that time has treated her all that kindly. Agatha herself was very conscious of changing social mores: towards the end of her life she remarked that some perfectly good motives for murder -- e.g. nude photographs -- were no longer usable, because no one cared. (Paris and Pam rather prove her point.)

Sophie's analysis is really rather good.

Mr Pierrepoint's prices

This is about hanging, and it comes last, so you can safely leave if you're not interested.

We have yet another bungled execution in Iraq. Well, I have known a number of Englishmen who held managerial positions in the Middle East, and I can't say that any of them enthused about the competence of the locals under their control. Rather the reverse. So I am not altogether surprised.

It seems that, in trying to hang Saddam's half-brother, the executioners succeeded only in beheading him. This is a known known, as Rumfseld might say, in the execution business. In New Mexico, in 1901, Black Jack Ketchum ended up in the same way, and there were doubtless less well publicised occurrences too.

As I remarked about the Saddam job, Albert Pierrepoint, England's most distinguished, and certainly the most literate, hangman, would have been deeply shocked by this incompetence. He wrote a book (which concluded, oddly enough, with his assertion that he was opposed to capital punishment), in which he outlined in some detail the best procedures to follow. You can still buy plenty of copies of this book (Executioner) for less than £10. The Iraqi experience does not, so far, seem to have shifted prices upwards.

To conduct an execution properly, you need to weigh the prisoner and calculate the drop. Full details are on Wikipedia, including, most helpfully, the British Home Office's official table of drops.

All you need to do, therefore, is spend £10 on Pierrepoint, and go to Wikipedia, and you are fully equipped. But this, it seems, as much else, is beyond the Iraqi authorities.