Sunday, April 29, 2007

RNA lunch: the book-trade event of the year

On Friday last to the UK Romantic Novelists' Association (RNA) lunch at the Savoy Hotel, London.

Every year, at about this time, the RNA hosts a lunch to announce the winners of their two principal annual awards: the Romantic Novel of the Year, which dates from 1960; and the more recently established Romance Prize, for short, category romances.

The reception and lunch which precede the announcement of the winners of these two awards have long been recognised as one of the book-trade's outstanding social occasions of the year, and that is a judgement with which I would not disagree.

Earlier this year, I was invited by the RNA to be one of the three judges for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, a role which I was very happy to accept. Fortunately, there is an elaborate preliminary procedure to reduce the original 200 entries for the award to a shortlist of six. Thus the task of the three judges is one of manageable proportions.

In a day or two (if I'm spared), I shall be writing brief reviews of all six of the shortlisted books. It will suffice here to say that I enjoyed all of them. The six books covered a substantial part of the full range of romantic fiction, including two family sagas, two books which moved backwards and forwards in time, and two romantic comedies aimed at the younger generation of readers. Not surprisingly, all these books were outstanding examples of their kind.

Perhaps unusually, the judges for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award were able to reach a unanimous decision, and we chose Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas. More of that when I write the reviews.

The winner of the Romance Prize, by the way, was Nell Dixon, for Marrying Max. There was a separate set of judges for that award.

All in all, the RNA lunch was an impressive occasion. As one of the judges, I was invited, together with my wife, to sit on the top table -- and this, mark you, in one of the Savoy's impressive banqueting halls. This very flattering part of the proceedings was particularly appreciated by Mrs GOB, who thereby gained a whole new insight into what I actually do on my computer and what it occasionally leads to.

My wife and I owe particular thanks to Jenny Haddon, the Chairman of the RNA, and Diane Pearson, the President; but thanks are also due to all the other RNA officers and members who made us feel so welcome.

The chairing of the judges' panel was undertaken by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who was also the principal speaker.

Tanni will be well known to the UK readers of this blog. Born with spina bifida, she is a wheelchair user, and is one of the UK's most successful disabled athletes. If I've counted them correctly, she has won 11 gold medals, 4 silver medals, and 1 bronze, in Paralympic Games. She also told me that she had competed in 60 marathons, winning 6 times in London alone. (She did not, by the way, take part in the most recent London marathon, which was, she said, much more fun to watch than to participate in.)

Tanni has recently announced her retirement from athletics, at the age of 37, and the official retirement date is in a couple of weeks' time. Nevertheless, after the Savoy lunch was over, Tanni was going to travel to Aylesbury, where she would put in two hours of training, as usual.

All in all, Tanni is one of the most impressive human beings I have ever met, and it was a privilege to be on her panel. She is also, by the way, the author of a couple of books, details of which, with much other info, can be found on her own web site.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Noted in passing

Madame Arcati has two stunning interviews with Molly Parkin, part 1 on 13 April and part 2 on 18 April. Surely, few writers can have lived life with such energy and commitment.

Will Entrekin is a writer who makes extensive use of Lulu and MySpace. I try hard, but I really can't take to MySpace. Must be an age thing.

Facebook seems to be another MySpacey kind of thing, and I gather from today's Times that every self-respecting undergraduate is on it -- 19 million of them. A couple of nice friendly guys have invited me to sign up as a friend, or some such, and if I do, I can apparently participate in all kinds of networking opportunities.

Well, this is all very flattering, I dare say, but I was always the world's worst networker in the old days, and the advent of the internet, plus the need to register before you can see anything, definitely holds no appeal. They don't call me grumpy for nothing, you know. But the young and the technologically fluent may like it.

Galleycat quotes UK Association of Authors' Agents president Clare Alexander, to the effect that, in rights deals, the practice of exchanging Canada for Europe is extremely insulting to Canada. Surely it's even more insulting to Europe?

On the subject of self-publishing, C.E. Petit Esq. reminds me that we should beware of that list of self-publishers which crops up all over the place. You know, the one which includes Byron, Hardy, Proust, Hemingway, and so forth. Yes, I dare say these people did, at one time or another, pay to have something published. But the list is usually quoted (by firms trying to sell self-publishing services) with the implication that, if you just spend a couple of thousand dollars or so, you too can become as famous as Byron, Hardy, Proust, et al. And there's a logical flaw in that argument.

Mr Petit also reminds me, reference my complaint about contemporary book design, that there are some very well designed books about -- including some that he did himself, in a former life, e.g. Al Senn's Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games.

In common with a few other people, C.E. Petit also recommends OpenOffice as an improvement on Microsoft Word, and suggests PageMaker 7 or Adobe InDesign for the layout of books. Word-processor programs are apparently inferior to proper layout programs in two key functions: hyphenation and vertical spacing. See also the comments on my practical books for writers post for more hints and tips on this matter.

The debate continues among commenters on my Kathy O'Beirne post. And defenders of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind seem to be organising a bit of a campaign in relation to my two-year-old review of the book. I don't mind these people slagging me off -- everyone is entitled to an opinion. But does the GOB really come up so high on the Google search results that it seems to be the obvious place on which to enthuse about a book to the whole wide world? If so -- crumbs.

Endings are really rather important. And although this article deals with the endings of famous movies, you might get some ideas from it on the tricky question of how to make your novel/short story really memorable.

The link for the movie endings article, by the way, came from RealityCarnival, which is a very strange mixture of links: eclectic, I think is the word. The subjects linked to seem to include everything from the metaphysics of 4-D hendecatopes (no, I don't either) to the meaning of existence and white peacocks. Thanks to Lynne Scanlon for the link.

Waterstone's have issued a new rate card for space in their shops. Yes, they'll sell anything; even a seat in the loo costs £5. Publishers are howling. Report in Publishing News; link from

I knew that Ingram was a big name in US book distribution, but I hadn't realised that the Ingram group has a substantial interest in all matters digital. Among other things, they own Lightning Source. And now they announce that, through VitalSource, they have distributed one billion ebooks in the VitalBook format.

Ali Karim is a formidable reader, collector, reviewer, and all-round fan of the more commercial genres, and he had a fine old time at the London Book Fair. He got to meet Dean Koontz, courtesy of Margaret Atwood's LongPen device, and he also spent a day touring the various stands and bumping into all manner of book-trade luminaries. Best of all, he discovered (hurrah!) that Charles McCarry has a new book out soon.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Andrew Losowsky: The Doorbells of Florence

What we have here is a gem.

Not, it is true, a whole tiara of diamonds; not even a single Koh-i-Noor; but a precious stone nevertheless; one which has been carefully polished and shaped by a master craftsman.

Somewhere along the line, Andrew Losowsky came up with a wonderful idea. I doubt whether it was wholly original -- it might be argued that it goes back at least to Chaucer, and probably the ancient Greeks, but we won't worry about that; what matters with an idea is what you do with it.

Losowsky's idea was that he would take a series of photographs of doorbells, and write a short story -- perhaps a mere sketch of a few lines -- about the person(s) who live behind those doorbells.

In this case he chose to photograph the doorbells of Florence. That's Florence Italy, in case you're in any doubt. And, as you would expect from a city of that age, the doorbells themselves form an interesting collection.

Our author then set about writing a short piece about each of the owners. And for most people that would have been quite enough; they would have congratulated themselves on a brilliant idea, crisply executed. Lososwsky, however, goes one further. He introduces a thread which links both the first and the last stories, and which reappears on the surface of the cloth, so to speak, periodically throughout the book.

Now this is all very well and good. But if you know anything about publishing and printing you will be saying to yourself: Hmm. Thirty-six full-colour photographs of doorbells, and short bits about each of them, a page or two in length. This is going to be wickedly expensive to print, and who the hell's going to buy it? Nah. Pass. Send the usual rejection later, Mavis.

I don't know whether Losowsky tried to find an orthodox publisher or not. But my conviction is that, if he had, he would have got pretty short shrift.

And therefore what we have here is not merely a gem in itself: it is also a supreme and sublime example of what some refer to as the new publishing paradigm, but which is perhaps best referred to, in plainer English, as a writer taking full advantage of the new technology.

Even ten years ago, it was hard to self-publish a book without committing several thousand of whatever currency you're working in. Five years ago you could do a text publication far more cheaply. But only in the last year or two, I suggest, or possibly an even shorter a period, has it been possible to self-publish a collection of full-colour photographs on suitably glossy paper without having to expend a small fortune.

Very wisely, and enormously successfully, Losowsky chose to publish The Doorbells of Florence on Lulu. And only on Lulu. Here's the link.

Now you will notice at once, when you go to Lulu, that this book is relatively expensive: in sterling it's £16.45. That's because it's printed throughout on coated paper, so that the images reproduce well.

As we all know, if we've been studying Lulu, you can arrange for Lulu to publish your book and also to make it available through all the usual online and retail outlets. But if you do, those outlets add on a sizeable chunk of money for their trouble, which means that your book doubles in price. So that, I guess, is why Losowsky has stuck to a simple Lulu-limited arrangement. If you want it, buy it from Lulu. Don't bother looking for it e.g. on Amazon, cos it ain't there.

Personally I can only say that I think it is well worth it's money. I bought the book because I was intrigued by the concept; I wanted to see what sort of a fist Lulu and its associates would make of a book of this kind. Having read it I think it was more than fair value. The printing of the book seems to me to be pretty damn good. Image purists may prefer duotone reproduction on some even fancier paper, or whatever, but for most of us this level of quality will do very nicely.

Andrew Losowsky has been ably assisted in his endeavour by a designer, Nuno Vargas, who has done an excellent job.

In case you think I've gone on too long about the visuals, let me say that the actual writing is first class too. Andrew Losowsky is a journalist by profession, and he knows how to convey a great deal in a short space; what is more, his work is genuinely funny and moving. I recommend it.

By the way: only a couple of weeks ago, in reference to Mark Chadbourn, I was remarking that I had never before come across a paperback without anything on the front but a picture -- and now here's a second one. Maybe there's a trend starting.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New look

Blogger, in its wisdom, has transferred me to the 'new Blogger' -- for which read, we hope, new and improved Blogger. Which means that the layout is undergoing a face lift.

Just at present, some of the old features in the right-hand column are missing. But fear not: they will be restored. Says he with no confidence whatever. But it should be possible. Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Eccentricities of the net

There's got to be a book in this somewhere

An email informs me that a search is on for female musicians and singers to be part of the Real Girl Band. In order to qualify for membership you need to be 'female, at least a size 16, have some musical talent and be ready for stardom.' Well, that's not quite me, of course, but I'm interested.

Details available online, naturally, and the sponsors include Just as Beautiful magazine.

An opportunity here, surely, for an enterprising freelance to write a blog/blook and make everybody even richer and more famous than they are sure to be anyway.


Zenofeller done wrote himself a book. With Chet. And you can read it free, online. And there's more about it here.

Caspar Wintermans has produced a new biography of Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie.

Ted Gioia runs the Great Books Guide, which is, I suspect, deliberately provocative and certainly highbrow; though he does include Agatha Christie at no 83 on the 100 greatest novels list.

Ted also appears on Blogcritics magazine.

None May Say is one of a noble and growing band of reviewers who deal only with POD books (mostly self-published).

Another Sky Press is doing a collection of cutting-edge fiction: not for the faint-hearted.

OK, now this one ya gotta see. I have no idea what it's advertising, but whatever it is, it should sell a million. Or two. Thanks to M.J. Rose for pointing it out.

Marti Lawrence has a Squidoo lens on self-publishing. It contains more information than any one person could possibly absorb, all of it valuable.

Lynne W. Scanlon loses patience with the big booksellers.

John Howard, author of The Key to Chintak (which is doing quite nicely, thank you, in the children's section) highlights Nicholas Clee on the way in which large publishing houses are keeping an eye on the self-publishers and small presses.

Harold Pinter: Old Times

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, yesterday evening, to see Old Times, by recent Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter.

This was not, I fear, a satisfactory evening. Pinter's 1970 play was originally directed by Peter Hall, both in London and on Broadway, and now he returns to the text for the first time in more than 35 years. The cast of three consists of Neil Pearson and Janie Dee as the married couple, with Susannah Harker as the enigmatic visitor.

In my extended essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I made the point that literary careers depend on chance (aka luck, randomness, karma) to a far greater exent than most people care to recognise. And this also applies in the theatre -- applies with knobs on, one might say.

Pinter's position is very simple. In 1958 he had a play called The Birthday Party produced in London. It ran for a week. The day after it closed, a glowing review by Harold Hobson appeared, and as Hobson was then the most influential theatre critic in London, people took a bit of notice.

Had Hobson's review not appeared, the likelihood is that Pinter would never have had another play produced. And, on the evidence of Old Times, I have to say that we would not have missed very much.

The simple truth is that, if Old Times were written today, by Joe Bloggs of Northampton, and submitted to the various 'new writing' theatres which claim to be looking for new talent, it would never be produced in a thousand years. But because it is written by a Nobel laureate, and acted by top-class professionals, and directed by a great master, we are all supposed to sit there dazzled. Well I didn't.

Given that the text is so unrewarding, one is obliged to concentrate on the acting and the direction. Which are certainly not without interest. Every word and gesture in this production is carefully considered, presumably by the actors and director working in concert, and they all do their best to breathe life and significance into it. But at the end of this short two-acter, the three actors looked exhausted; and well they might, because it's uphill work.

In such circumstances, one's mind wanders. And I found myself subjecting Susannah Harker to close scrutiny. Ms Harker, you may recall, first made a major mark as the young innocent who was seduced and corrupted by the wicked Ian Richardson in TV's House of Cards (1990). In the years since then, this actress has matured into a handsome, matronly forty-year-old. Precisely the sort of woman, in fact, that I find most attractive.

In Old Times, Ms Harker is required, by the exigencies of the plot (I used the word loosely) to wear a revealing skirt. And there is much talk, in act two, of people looking up said skirt. Indeed, director, costume designer and actress have arranged for this to be possible, and not only for Neil Pearson.

Unfortunately, Ms Harker spent most of the evening with her knees pointing away from me. And it was, I think, remiss of the director not to share things out more equally. If only I'd known, I would have booked seats on the other side of the auditorium.

Come the final curtain, however, and the usual deep bows from the knackered actors, I was rewarded by several glimpses of Ms Harker's splendid bosom. So the evening was not entirely wasted. But it was a damn close-run thing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Practical books for writers

First, a book on the technique of fiction; then a book on how to prepare a text for the press, if you’re going to publish it yourself; and finally a book on how to generate sales through online marketing.

Sandra Scofield: The Scene Book

For about thirty years I made it my business to read every book I could find about the technique of fiction; and I certainly learnt a great deal from them. Unfortunately none of those books was perfect, and this one isn’t either. However, if you’re a relative beginner in writing fiction, it’s worth its money.

Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book is subtitled ‘A primer for the fiction writer’. And her principal point, as you will guess from the title, is that fiction should be written mainly as a series of scenes – the word 'scene' being used here in the sense that it is used by playwrights.

The author has written seven novels and a memoir, and the record of their reception shows that she is predominantly a literary, rather than commercial, writer. Several of her novels have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Sandra is said to be ‘a popular summer workshop instructor for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and other conferences’. (See her web site for more details.)

The Scene Book seems to have been written with more than half an eye towards the textbook market. After all, creative-writing courses, at university level, now seem to be a minor industry in the US, and developing fast elsewhere. I have more than serious doubts about the value of such courses, but there they are, and the students doubtless need textbooks, so why not offer one?

I was attracted to this book by the fact that, some years ago, I too gradually came to the conclusion that writing in scenes was the best way to connect with modern readers. It has something to do with the fact that we’ve all watched endless TV and movies.

I find it interesting that, even on page one of her book, where Sandra Scofield tells us that she herself grew up with no access to television, and saw few movies, she also tells us that, when she began to write, what she wanted to do was ‘to watch characters work out their destiny on the page.’ And she grew excited as she waited ‘for the story to reach its final image.’

Note the words 'watch' and 'image'. Yep, this scene business is in the very air that we breathe all right.

Despite her literary leanings, Sandra Scofield has some sensible things to say about commercial fiction. ‘Don’t get trapped,’ she advises us, ‘in a false choice between “literary” and “commercial” writing. In my mind, fiction exists on a continuum of accessibility, affected primarily by language (style) and story complexity.’

I don’t know that I would go along with that last bit entirely, about story complexity, but the continuum part I agree with.

Sandra also gives writers the following good advice:
1. Think of yourself as a worker.
2. Show up at the job.

The Scene Book is published in paperback by Penguin, who have not, in my opinion, made a good job of it. The paper looks cheap, and the print is smaller than I would like. The book would have been far better if printed in a 9” x 6” format, with a slightly larger font and heavier paper.

Aaron Shepard: Perfect Pages

Aaron Shepard tells us that he has been making his living from self-publishing for years. He is an award-winning children’s author who has had numerous picture books issued by major publishers: for details, visit his web site.

You will find that one section of Aaron’s web site is devoted to ‘the new business of self- publishing -- how to publish books for profit with book marketing on, print on demand by Lightning Source Inc., and book design in Microsoft Word.’

Perfect Pages is about that last bit: how to use Microsoft Word, rather than an expensive page-layout program, to prepare a book for the printer. Though a short book, Perfect Pages describes in great detail how to go about laying out your text to best effect.

Well, you don’t have to go very far into Aaron Shepard’s book before you have your nose rubbed into one of the great unpalatable truths of self-publishing, namely that, while writing may be fun, preparing books for the press usually isn’t. Usually it’s just plain old hard work: dry as dust, boring, repetitious, fiddly, and calling for enormous patience and concentration.

Very few people in this world have the right temperament to take the trouble to lay out text for printing in the way that it ought to be done. And that includes, believe me, all modern trade publishers (see my remarks about Penguin, above).

In the old days, when printers were craftsmen, rather than computer-keyboard operators, they took an intense pride in their work. Let’s face it, it was the only to avoid madness. So, for example, no self-respecting printer would have allowed a right-hand page to end with a hyphen. No printer would have allowed a chapter to end with two lines at the top of a page. To avoid these horrors, the printer would rejig the previous page; or possibly even the five previous pages. If all else failed, he would have asked the author to rewrite a few paragraphs.

Today, absolutely no one (apart from a few eccentrics such as the GOB, and, posssibly, Aaron Shepard), gives a tuppenny shit about any of these refinements. They just empty the digital file into the machine, and that’s it.

And boy does it ever show. Modern books, as often as not, look absolutely bloody awful. American book design is, as I have said more than once, better than British, but little of it is wonderful, and most of it shows a woeful disregard for polish and refinement. The general attitude seems to be: readers are too stupid, or in too much of a hurry, or both, to worry about these things. And they all cost money, so fuhgeddaboudit.

It is a firm belief of mine, however, and one which I urge you to act upon, that whether modern readers know anything formal about page layout or not, they are profoundly influenced, albeit unconsciously, by the way in which the text is presented to them. If you are a self-publisher, the biggest favour that you can possibly do for yourself is to learn how to present your work to its best possible advantage. And in that regard, Aaron Shepard is an invaluable aid.

On Amazon this book is priced at $20 or £13.50, but I bought a copy for £6.40, which included £2.75 for postage. So shop around, folks. In any case, even if you pay full whack, it’s worth every penny.

And don’t forget to go to Aaron’s web site. It’s a very generous collection of tips, hints, and wisdom for those who are involved in putting their work before the public.

Steve Weber: Plug your book

Another unpleasant truth about self-publishing is, of course, that publishing is one thing, and selling is quite another.

Not only do you have to spend a year or so writing your book, and endless tedious hours getting it ready for the printer, but you also have to spend at least as long again on marketing!

Hey, nobody held a gun to your head and forced you to do this, right? And you don’t actually have to do any marketing at all, if you don’t feel like it. But then don’t be surprised if you sell zero copies. Other things being equal (which they never are, of course, but let’s not worry about that), your sales will vary in proportion to the marketing effort that you put in.

Steven Weber’s Plug Your Book is subtitled ‘Online book marketing for authors – book publicity through social networking’. And if the book has a fault, it is that it underestimates, or plays down, the amount of time and effort which some of the suggested procedures require; and it may give an overoptimistic estimate of the volume of sales which is likely to be achieved as a result. However, this is another book which is worth every penny of its asking price. (Current best price $11.99.) I thought I knew quite a lot about online marketing, but this book told me things that I’d never previously heard of.

Steve Weber is, you won’t be surprised to hear, another self-published author. (He is the author of The Home-Based Bookstore, which was reviewed here on 15 December 2006.) And, since the whole thrust of his book on marketing is that you should use the internet to maximum advantage, you won’t be surprised to hear that the book has its own web site.

Again, the material on the web site constitutes a remarkably generous contribution to the gift economy. OK, OK, so it creates goodwill for the author, and softens you up to buy his various books. But it all requires work on Steve Weber’s part, and you get the benefit of his experience for next to nothing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Just keep at it....

From time to time in the book world, you come across people who believe that all a writer needs in order to succeed is perseverance. The secret of success is simple -- they say. Just keep going.

And you know what? It's true. You just need to live to be 96, that's all.

Thanks to Jon for the link.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Worth a look

The novelist John Lanchester has some interesting things to say about copyright and intellectual property in general. (Viktor Janis, among others, spotted this.)

The Washington Post did an experiment to find out whether people can recognise a true artist when they hear (see/read) one, and finds that they can't. No surprise there then. Thanks to Maria Schneider for the link.

Latest in the ranks of those reviewing print-on-demand books only is The PODler. He has interesting things to say about what a POD author should expect. And, by an amazing coincidence, he reviews my Lucius the Club (10 April).

Madame Arcati acts as hostess to Molly Parkin's poetry. In one poem, Molly reports having sex, aged 73, with a 23-year-old young man from down under (it tends to be catching, doesn't it?); and in another she describes living in the Tower of Babel -- which sounds quite a friendly place. Our Moll wrote lots of books once upon a time, but no one seems to have listed them in a proper bibliography online. Abebooks can find some for you.

After three years, Biff Mitchell has finished Murder by Burger. Now all he has to do....

In his first novel, about McCarthy-era Hollywood, Eoin Hennigan claims that The Truth, it Lies.

Someone, probably Little, Brown & Co (young readers division), has spent a lot of money on the web site for Atherton. There's also an associated web site, Unlock Dr Harding's Brain, but I advise you not to go there without a youthful guide, otherwise you'll get hopelessly lost and confused. I certainly did.

Sam Tyler, he dead. Imho. When a little girl turns off your TV set, I reckon that's it. And if you're an American, and have no idea what I'm talking about, don't worry. You will.

For a regular stream of reviews on every sort and kind of book, try the January Magazine. Where there is, by another amazing coincidence, a review of Lucius the Club.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Lulu does it for Ron

Well, there's nothing like a success story for warming the cockles of the old heart, is there? Try this one.

A while back, retired Fleet Street photographer Ron Morgans decided to write a thriller. You and I know, of course, that Fleet Street columnists are well connected fellows, and ladies, celebrities in their own right, and so when they turn their hand to fiction they don't have any trouble in finding a big-name publisher. Photographers, on the other hand, are a different breed -- rather vulgar fellows, don't you know; tend to use the wrong knife and fork -- so Ron wasn't received by agents and publishers with quite the same warm enthusiasm as would greet, say, a 29-year-old, mini-skirted columnista from the Grauniad, or wherever.

So Ron published the book himself. Through

Ron tells me that, after reading about Kill Chase here on the GOB, Clare Christian of publishers The Friday Project asked to see the book, and liked it. So too did her colleague Scott Pack (ex Waterstones).

The outcome is that The Friday Project will publish Kill Chase and Ron's second novel, simultaneously, in March 2008; sales and distribution will be through Pan Macmillan, which should help.

This is by no means the only example of a modern self-published book being picked up by a 'proper' publisher, but it isn't a common occurrence and constitutes a considerable achievement.

Tao for now

Ron Hogan has a comment on the ebooks business. In the course of it he mentions his own 'experiment with the Tao Te Ching', which turns out to be really interesting. It should keep you going for the weekend, if not for life.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Things that I just couldn't let pass

Dept of I don't believe it

Galleycat carries a report about what is, allegedly (heavily underlined), literary theft by Penguin.

Now normally I wouldn't advise any writer to get his knickers in too much of a twist about people (allegedly) stealing his work. For one thing, life is too short. For another, the financial loss of usually zero, or far less than you would like to think. And then legal fees are way too high to even think of it -- if you're tempted, just remember the da Vinci guys. No, the best way to deal with any alleged chicanery is to give it publicity. Which is what, belatedly, is happening here, albeit through a report of a lengthy court case. And as far as I'm concerned, Penguin just lost a great deal of my respect.


The Literary Saloon led me to an article in The Word which considers the fate of various first-time novelists in the light of the way they were treated by the New York Times Book Review. Read this article if you dare, but be warned that, if you are anything like me, you will end up deeply depressed if not actually suicidal.

Who, I ask you, in all seriousness, would be a writer? Being a novelist means that several years of work are exposed entirely to the whim of a handful of people, with an approximately 1 in 10,000 chance of passing from one judgemental phase to the next one. Agent, editor, critic: each one of these people can kill your so-called career stone dead. And that's even before you get to be read by the public, who also have a say in matters.

I suggest to you that no one capable of rational thought would ever get involved in this business.

Ebooks? Oo needs em?

Charlie Stross has an exceptionally well informed and well balanced article about ebooks. Mercifully it's also quite funny in places, though God knows some of the content is again depressing. Publishers are just so slow to learn. What is it about the business that closes down the thinking capacity?

You really ought to read Mr Stross if you have any kind of involvement in books, right the way through from writer to reader.

Thanks to Viktor Janis for the link.

More ways than one

Long-time readers of this blog will know that we have more than once considered the dangerous English laws of libel, which greatly favour those who consider themselves to have been maligned.

No party has more experience in avoiding (as far as possible) libel suits than the UK newspapers; and over the years they have developed a number of techniques to protect themselves.

I was reminded of all this by today's Times. In News in Brief, the Times reports that Lady Falkender has been awarded £75,000 in damages, plus costs, against the BBC. The Beeb suggested a number of wicked things, all of which, obviously, must have been untrue.

Meanwhile, in section two of the Times, we are presented with a short profile of Lady Falkender. This lists some of the wicked lies about her which have now been found to be wholly untrue, and explains how misunderstandings about the truth might have come about -- at least in the minds of those not paying full attention.

Two articles for the connoisseurs, I think.

P.S. In the Sunday Times, India Knight considers Sir Martin Sorrell's recent libel case, and a few others, and concludes that 'suing for libel just makes you look pathetic'.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Short reviews

Eric Sykes: If I don't write it, nobody else will

Eric Sykes is one of the UK's most popular comedians, and If I don't write it, nobody else will is his autobiography.

Morecambe and Wise used to claim that the public loved them. Well, love is perhaps putting it a bit strong, but they were certainly held in warm affection; and so is Sykes, by everyone old enough to remember him.

Sykes was born to a working-class family in the heavily industrial north of England in 1923; and the chief virtue of this book is, I think, that it provides a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up in that time and place.

Life was very hard -- let us have no illusions about that. And future historians will, I think, find this unsentimental and unvarnished account of those years to be a valuable resource. Sykes tells us that he was always hungry, and in winter he was always cold.

Equally valuable is Sykes's account of his wartime service with the RAF. But the remainder of the book is less interesting. True, we get a detailed account of Sykes's long and successful career in radio, television, and on stage; and at every turn we learn that the suits in the BBC and other media seldom had a clue how to develop and get the best out of talent; but then we knew that already. Sykes describes the various BBC Heads of Light Entertainment as 'a disappointing bunch of trainee bureaucrats with a limited knowledge of what makes people laugh.'

Whoever edited and proofread this book wasn't up to much, I'm afraid. Among the nonsenses are the following (correct versions in brackets): references to Opal cars (Opel) and Winnie Bagos (Winnebagos); the Isle of Weight (Wight); a registry office (register); and Sylvia Simms (Syms).

We are also told that, in the radio series Educating Archie, the ventriloquist Peter Brough was the ward of his dummy, Archie Andrews. He was actually Archie's guardian (obviously enough), and Archie was Brough's ward.

The account of the the heavyweight fight between Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper in 1963 tells us that the fight went the distance and that Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won on points. He didn't; he won by a technical knockout, the fight being stopped in round five.

No one who isn't fond of Sykes is going to read this book, but there are an awful lot of such readers and they will doubtless find it worthwhile.

Mark Chadbourn: The fairy feller's master-stroke

Mark Chadbourn's 2002 novella, The fairy feller's master-stroke, was published by PS Publishing, a small UK firm which specialises in the fields of SF, fantasy and horror fiction. The company has won several Best Small Press awards.

The fairy feller's master stroke is, I think, the only paperback book I have ever seen which has a picture on the front cover but absolutely no indication of the book's title or author. (For those details you have to look at the spine.) Instead, the front cover is wholly taken up with a reproduction of the painting, later titled The fairy feller's master-stroke, which was commissioned by George Henry Hayden, the chief steward of the Royal Bethlem Hospital.

The artist who painted the picture was Richard Dadd (1817-1886). Dadd was incarcerated in Bethlem (then known as a lunatic asylum) after having murdered his father.

As its title suggests, Dadd's picture featured a host of fairies engaged in various puzzling acts, with one central figure who is shown about to strike a blow with an axe.

Chadbourn's novella tells the story of Danny, a man whose mother was obsessed by Dadd's picture, and who becomes obsessed with it himself. In order to try to discover the picture's true meaning, Danny undertakes a journey to the Middle East, following the itinerary which was undertaken earlier by Dadd.

This novella is not, in my opinion, an easy read. Ideally, it should probably be read at one sitting; and, if not read at one setting, then it should be read twice.

In order to enjoy the book, you need to be interested in three things: fairies, nineteenth-century art, and seriously weird books. I qualify on all three grounds. (In fact I once wrote a fairy story myself, and you can read it free, online.)

Like its subject, this novella is a peculiar piece of work. It is not, in the context of fiction, the equal of Dadd's masterly painting. But then, what is?