Friday, August 31, 2007

Jack Myers and Virtual Worlds

Another man who is unafraid to bang his own drum (see Wednesday) is Jack Myers.

A recent press release, in connection with his new book, describes Myers as editor and publisher of Jack Myers Media Business Report, the web site, and The latter is 'the online community for intelligent TV fans'.

His abbreviated c.v. tells us that Mr Myers was identified as one of the 1,000 Most Creative Individuals in the U.S by Who's Really Who and is the recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award; he has won the Crystal Heart Award from the Heartland Film Festival, and has been nominated for both an Academy and an Emmy Award. Myers has consulted with more than 200 leading media companies, agencies and major global marketers on media and marketing trends.

More importantly, perhaps, the Myers Emotional Connections Research Studies, launched in 1999, are said to have emerged as state-of-the art standards for measuring audiences' emotional connections with media.

Now, if you've been reading the GOB for long, you begin to see how I might be interested. Myers has recognised a point often repeated here, to the point of tedium, namely that fiction and drama are all about creating emotion in the audience.

Moreover, Myers has recognised that the same is true of much else in the modern media, even when said media appear to be dealing with established fact. For example: watch any modern TV news bulletin in the UK, and what you see, as often as not, is not news as such, but some form of gossip or speculation deliberately dressed up in such a way as to arouse emotion. I doubt whether news bulletins anywhere else in the world are much different these days.

Even more to the point, Myers has picked up on the new phenomenon of virtual worlds, and the fascination which they hold for young people in particular. Do I need to say that fascination is an outcome of emotion? Wow, that was terrific! say the participants in, say, Secondlife. Wouldn't mind some more of that. This is an emotional reaction.

Arising out of his studies of emotion, Myers recently authored a book, in co-operation with Jerry Weinstein. Entitled Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future, the book itself is interactive and 'virtual', in the sense that it allows readers to submit contributions to a 'reader-generated novel'; successful contributors may even take a part share in the royalties.

The book argues that 'Virtual Worlds and enhanced social networks allow people to explore and experience new universes, while expanding their emotional range and depth, changing the nature of communication, and creating different identities.'

This, I somewhat reluctantly agree, is true. I also agree with the authors' view that 'a growing number of young people are spending unprecedented amounts of time in a virtual existence. Virtual Worlds are becoming an embedded part of our culture and the implications for every aspect of society are unimaginable.'

Whether this is a healthy situation or not is open to question, and I for one have reservations about it. But even those who are violently opposed to these developments need to recognise that opponents aren't going to get very far by standing up and shouting, 'This ought to be stopped!'

For me, much the most interesting aspect of Jack Myers's numerous enterprises is his research into audience emotions. You can find the titles of some of his reports on his web site.

If you do click on the titles of these reports, you find, not surprisingly, that getting sight of his research findings costs money. For example, a copy of the Myers 2008 Emotional Connections Research Studies will cost you (or your company) $120,000.

Myers's press release states that Myers is a Board Member of the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, and serves on the Dean's Advisory Board for the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. This suggests that he is working with some pretty respectable academics.

All of which is fascinating to me. I have thought for at least forty years that there was considerable scope for linking up audiences to some form of data measurement device(s), and finding out what exactly happens to human beings, physiologically speaking, when they watch a deeply moving or exciting play or movie.

We already know some of this, from observation of our own reactions and those of other audience members. For example, in a suspense movie, people's hands sweat. In a comedy, people laugh, and rock backwards and forwards. In a tragedy, I have heard it said, a side to side movement can be observed in the audience.

Such physiological research can be supplemented with psychological research, through the use of questionnaires and interviews.

The holy grail of all this, of course, is to identify the triggers of emotion, so that various emotions can be produced pretty much at will. Find the answer to that, and you will make a fortune. Even better, or worse, depending on your point of view, those who control the levers of emotion can sweep themselves into positions of leadership and influence in politics, religion, and the arts. No trouble at all.

Don't we live in a wonderful world?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

M.J. Rose's new book

You don't get anywhere in this business by being backward in coming forward. Hence I am not altogether surprised to see what the Mistress of Buzz and book marketing, M.J. Rose, has to say about her new novel.

What she says, basically, is that if you read her blog regularly, and absorb all the free info and help for writers that it contains, then the least you can do is go out and buy the book. Think of it as paying your dues.

This works out at roughly $20 a year, so I can't say that I disagree with her, but the blog is not called Buzz, Balls and Hype for nothing. And it's the balls bit I'm thinking of first.

Entitled The Reincarnationist, M.J.'s new book is suspense, takes place in NYC now and in 1884, and Rome now and 391 (AD). M.J. says she's really proud of this novel. It's her first BEA Buzz book, her first Booksense pick (for September), her first starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, her first review in Entertainment Weekly, and more to come according to emails she's had.

Oh yes, and there's a booktrailer done by Vidlit, an interview done by Expanded Books, and a podcast where Carol Memmot from USA Today interviews the author. Links to all these on the book's web site.

Those are the buzz and hype bits. A lesson in how to do it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Something from the weekend

Phenix & Phenix is a firm of publishing publicists based in Austin, Texas. Their main web site contains some interesting information for published writers and for those who wannabe: they report, for instance, that their self-published client Sherrie Mathieson is about to published by Random House. Which is a nice encouraging story for first thing in the morning -- though note, please, that it is a non-fiction book. Ninety per cent of publishing is non-fiction, a statistic often overlooked amid all the razzmatazz.

More to the point, perhaps, Phenix and Phenix staff have just started a blog. This makes available further chunks of free and valuable information for writers. See, for example, the piece on how to get ink in a publishing trade journal; or how to prepare for a radio/TV interview.

Fancy yourself as a graphic novelist? If so, go see what is on offer at Random House UK. Jonathan Cape, the Observer, and an outfit called Comica are putting up a prize of £1000 plus a full page in the Observer, and, presumably, an entree into the graphic-novel biz.

Martin Goodman has thoughts on being reviewed, and much more, on his blog.

The reviewing policy on the GOB, by the way, is that I only review stuff that I can be reasonably enthusiastic about. Occasional exceptions are made for heavily hyped books which, imho, don't really deserve to be singled out for a big push, but have been, nevertheless.

Linda Kelsey has some really interesting thoughts on how you not only have to write a book, but sing and dance for it as well.

Puzzling, isn't it? C.S. Harris reflects on how she feels When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers. The reflections come in part one and part two. (Link from Chap O'Keefe n Misfit Lil.)

You enter this business at your own risk, folks. And nowadays you have no excuse for not knowing what you're letting yourself in for.

Well, dammit, here's a pretty good offer. Novelist/playwright Susan Hill also runs a publishing company: Long Barn Books. The company's web site now offers a couple of blogs, and the new one contains information about how to submit a proposal for a book (The Quest, 28 August). Not many companies make it that easy. Agent not required. Non-fiction, on the whole, preferred.

There's a lot to be said for niches these days. Find a niche market, write for it, collect books within that sub-genre, blog about it, and so forth. Either for fun or profit, or both.

One such niche is occupied by Paul Taylor's blog With Sword and Pen. This focuses on first edition and collectible books pertaining to the American Civil War.

There are blogs, and blogs. Although I'm reluctant to give it publicity, here's one which rips off posts from other blogs (including one of mine), without credit, and uses them to encourage readers to click on the ads and links. (Tip-off from Debra Hamel.)

Technically, it seems, these things are known as spam blogs, or splogs. More on Wikipedia.

Bat Segundo interviews an awful lot of writers, in more or less hour-long mp3 formats. Among the more interesting subjects recently are SF novelist William Gibson and the controversial date-rape theorist Katie Roiphe.

Hotel St George Press is an unusual enterprise. It is is both an online, literary and arts quarterly and a new, experimental imprint of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books.

The quarterly features original fiction, artwork, short films, music, soundscapes, spoken word and secret histories; all of these occupy carefully designed rooms in an ever-expanding virtual hotel.

More recently, there are books. The first book, published in April,was not unreasonably by the Hotel St. George cofounder Aaron Petrovich: The Session. (Scroll down to the foot of the page.) This was was released in April and attracted good reviews. Now (well, October actually) there is The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, by Alex Rose. Judging by the extract, this is an intriguing mixture of pseudo-science and well informed flights of imagination. Probably an acquired taste, but some people are certainly going to admire it.

On Thursday nights, four English guys get together in the pub and, over a few beers, decide how the world really ought to be run if it was done on sensible lines. And they invent new products that people really do need but no one so far has had the wit to manufacture. Then they write to the good and the great and explain what's what. Then they publish the results. Allegedly.

See more on the Thursday Night web site. Dovegreyreader likes the book.

Bear Parade, dedicated to non-profit literature, has just published Compassionate Moose, by Mazie Louise Montgomery.

This is another one which is a bit of an acquired taste, but Mazie has a voice all right. And just think: twenty years ago, the author of this book would have had to xerox a few copies, staple them together, and stand on the street corner, handing them out to people who were too shy to say no. Now she can get it on the web and weird guys in England can read it. And tell other people about it in India, and South Africa, and New Zealand. This is what's called progress. Don't underestimate it.

Compassionate Moose may not be the one which takes off and spreads faster than Ebola, but one day something will. From wholly outside the mainstream hit machine.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pete n Di

Mrs GOB and I went to London last week -- a rare event. Having an hour to spare, we wandered through Kensington Gardens.

The Gardens are the site of two interesting memorials, of a sort. I suppose that top billing these days must go to the Princess Diana memorial fountain. You can see a photograph of part of it here.

Actually the memorial isn't so much a fountain, in the ordinary sense, as a water feature. It is positioned on a slight slope, and takes the form of an approximate circle of concrete -- but concrete tarted up to look like some kind of low-grade marble. A considerable volume of water rises from underground at the top of the circle, but doesn't shoot up into the air. Instead, it moves away sharply, both left and right, rippling over a variety of cunningly shaped ridges and hollows. Then, at the bottom, the two streams meet, and the water disappears again, into an underground drain.

The fountain is quite an intriguing piece of park architecture, but quite what it has to do with Princess Diana I really don't know. Comments about it being both fast and wet would, I suppose, be quite inappropriate.

As mentioned here a while back, there are already more than 200 books about Princess Di, so when is someone going to produce one about the fountain? Or did I miss it?

More important than such frippery, however, is the far older, and, in some quarters, far more famous, statue of Peter Pan. This was erected in the park, at the expense of Sir James Barrie, in 1912.

I have several times previously mentioned Sir James Barrie and his disturbing story about Peter Pan: notably when I agreed with the eminent critic Amanda Craig in describing it as 'terrifying'. The story emerged in several versions, early in the twentieth century, but it soon became a hugely successful stage play, with a prose version to match. The edition that I have is the Everyman edition of the version of 1911, which was originally published as Peter and Wendy.

Here, to be more forthcoming, is the full note of what I scribbled in the back of my copy of Peter Pan after I had finished reading it -- well, re-reading it -- perhaps ten years ago:

Terrifying. Appalling. It is the confusion of mother/wife role, in Wendy, which is so disturbing. The story does not so much reveal, as give a horrifying glimpse of, the author's dreadful confusion of mind. Painful to contemplate. It is the embodiment of the fear of maturity -- the dread of adult responsibility -- of having to take command of one's own life.

Not the best quote for a book cover, really, is it?

Anyway, from 1904 onwards Peter Pan was famous, and the Kensington Gardens statue was commissioned by Barrie from Sir George Frampton. It took a year to create, and was erected overnight, with no opening ceremony; it was said by the Times to a gift to the young children who played in the park -- no doubt carefully supervised by their nannies.

But just look at the bloody thing. I mean, it's all right as far as it goes. Quite charmingly done. But what the hell are we to make of it -- and of the subject's progenitor?

Official sources tell us that the topmost figure of Peter himself was modelled -- loosely -- upon some photographs of six-year-old Michael Llewellyn Davies, taken by Barrie, with the boy wearing an outfit which apparently represented the author's 'ideal vision' of his character.

But, I repeat, just look at it. The boy is wearing a dress for a start. Did you ever see anything more androgynous in your life? (And it is traditional, please remember, for an actress to play the part of Pan on stage.)

The base is populated by quite a number of figures and animals. The animals are mostly unexceptionable rabbits, and squirrels, with a few mice and snails. The figures are said to be fairies, and indeed they obviously are. But am I alone in finding their wings much more insectivorous than is usually the case, and consequently slightly sinister? They remind me of flying ants -- not my favourite creature.

What I found really worrying, however, was the topmost figure, the one whose head reaches almost to Peter's knees. This figure is larger than the others, and although identified as a fairy in an authoritative source, you could certainly be forgiven for mistaking her as human.

In either case, what in the world is she doing? She appears to be staring up Peter's skirt, as if anxious to ascertain whether he is wearing any knickers; and, whether he is or is not, she appears keen to identify his gender. As well she might.

Perhaps I am taking this all too seriously. The statue is probably harmless enough. And judging by the rubbed areas, where many generations of hot little hands have stroked the bunny rabbits' heads, I dare say that most children emerge from viewing the thing without any great harm done.

But I do wonder about the sculptor, Sir George Frampton. Was he just a bit of a bumbler, with a talent for sculpture, who produced the Pan statue, pretty much to order, in return for a fee? Or was he, as at least seems possible, a much more thoughtful man, possessed of a keen insight into Barrie's personality? And perhaps, just perhaps, the man had a sense of humour.

Note to self: read him up. But this might prove difficult, I find. A man at Leeds has done a PhD thesis on him, but there's no full-length biography.

A handy starting point for Pan studies in general is the wonderful Terri Windling's essay, which has a useful bibliography at the end.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Everybody's at it

The Guardian (link from reports (as I imagine do most other papers) that quite a lot of Brits want to be writers. Well, hell, it looks so easy, doesn't it? And they all make so much money.

YouGov, a well known opinion-sampling agency, asked 2461 people about their ambitions in life. Almost 10% of Britons aspire to being an author, followed by sports personality, pilot, astronaut and event organiser on the list of most coveted jobs. (Event organiser?)

More women than men yearn to write, while those aged between 35 and 50, and those over 50, were most likely to dream about getting published.

We were talking about westerns last week, and if you're interested you might like to look at Saddlebums, a new website dedicated to that genre. Opening gunshots: an interview with Brian Garfield.

My favourite quote: 'I don’t agree with those who say, “Isn’t it terrible what Hollywood did to your book.” Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books – the books are right over here on the shelf, untouched.'

Mark Watson is reportedly a well known UK comedian, though he wasn't known to me until he appeared as the author of A Light-hearted Look at Murder. The publisher is Chatto, which normally means literary.

Watson is a man, I now learn, who made a bit of a name for himself by performing stand-up comedy for 24 hours non-stop, at Edinburgh. Then he came back the next year and did 36 hours.

Not surprisingly, a man like that has been getting some coverage for his book. One reader tells me, however, that he found it disappointing. A case of don't give up the night job? The Times, however, thinks it's 'Packed with brilliant observations and sharp one-liners'. See what you think.

In the US, Little Brown are publishing a debut book by Valerie Trueblood, a woman of sixty. Hope for the oldies yet, it seems. Seven Loves is the story of the seven loves in one woman's life. It moves back and forth in time, from her childhood to her eighth decade, and it 'weaves together the strands of an ordinary life made extraordinary by the complex passions that drive it.' And all like that.

Not for me (it looks a bit lit'ry, for one thing), but mature ladies might be pleased if you bought it for them. And it never hurts to make a mature lady happy, believe me. They are more grateful than most.

The Book Depository has a new look.

Personally, I am always less than happy with front pages which are packed with information; they look overcrowded to my eye. But if I knew anything I would have got rich in the era.

Americans are at risk of libel too. And even if they're bloggers. One case getting some airing currently is summarised on Galleycat. Some theorists hold that it's a publicity stunt, but I bet it doesn't feel that way to the blogger concerned.

So far, I have had only one mauvais quart d'heure with a lawyer, and I must say that I would prefer, on the whole, by and large, taking one thing with another, not to have any more.

Question: What's the top-selling sex manual on Abebooks this year? Answer, a Christian guide to 'new' approaches to sexual intimacy in marriage. 'New' in this case means 1981, when the book was first published.

Also in the top ten are four Taoist books. Secrets of the East or something. Why is abroad always racier than home?

The Everyman's Library is republishing (UK and US) some of Dashiell Hammett, with an introduction by James Ellroy.

Hammett is a famous name in crime fiction, but I never quite got on with him myself. Several of his novels were filmed, notably The Maltese Falcon, but Red Harvest I found ridiculous, and I came to the conclusion that he owed at least some of his fame to mixing with the right set. He was sort of married to the playwright Lillian Hellman, which can't have done any harm.

However, Hammett did behave bravely and honourably in standing up to McCarthy. He refused to betray his friends -- see Forster on that -- which got him blacklisted.

According to the web sites which measure these things (don't ask me how), about 5 per cent of readers of this blog are based in India. And such readers might well be interested in a new print on demand service: Cinnamon Teal.

India has 18 officially recognized languages, hundreds of dialects and sub-languages, and many cultural differences and varying ideologies. All of which gives special relevance to the concept of print on demand. Of course, Cinnamon Teal offers the same service to those outside India, since most projects can be handled over the net. The company claims to offer a service similar to that of, but significantly cheaper.

Cinnamon Teal, by the way, is a division of the online bookstore Dogears Etc.

You may perhaps have noticed a comment from Siobhan Curham the other day. Siobhan is a writer whose first four books were published by mainstream publishers, Random House and Hodder, but now finds herself reduced (or happily released?) to publishing her own. She has a web site where you can read all about it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Denise Mina: The Field of Blood

Denise Mina's The Field of Blood is as impressive a novel as I've read in some time. It is not always, however, a lot of fun to read. And it is saved from being just another unpleasant slice of life by the fact that it is a crime novel: this gives the book structure, and purpose, and renders it ultimately satisfying. The literary version of the same material would be just plain distasteful.

The Field of Blood was published in 2004, being by my count the author's fifth novel. It was identified on publication as the first in a series, and book two (The Dead Hour) came out in 2006, while Slip of the Knife has just appeared.

The principal character in Field of Blood, and in the series, is an overweight young woman called Paddy Meehan. When we first meet her it is 1981, and she is eighteen years old, working as a copy boy (sic) on a Glasgow newspaper. She still lives with her family, and has ambitions to be a journalist.

However, this is Glasgow, and it's 1981, a time and place in which sexism and religious bigotry were the order of the day. Furthermore, Paddy comes from a working-class Catholic family. The family has no expectations of her, other than that she will marry her fiance, Sean, and have children just like any other woman. And the newspaper is staffed exclusively by hard-drinking men who regard her as part of the furniture.

The opening chapter of the book describes the murder of a child, by two other children. This fictional crime is clearly based on a real-life crime in Liverpool, which you can read all about if you've the stomach for it. My stomach is medium strong, but I didn't find this happy reading, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue with the book. However, continue I did, and it pretty soon had me gripped tight.

Paddy, of course, begins to investigate the murder, prompted in part by the fact that one of the children accused of the crime is related to her fiance. In a complicated course of events, she falls out comprehensively with her family (and is sent to Coventry by them as a result), gets herself unengaged, loses her virginity, and very nearly gets herself killed.

She doesn't lose her Catholic faith, but that's only because she lost it years earlier, before her first communion. She goes to church to please her mother, who goes to church to please her husband, who goes to church to set a good example to his children.

Side by side with the story of fat Paddy Meehan, the teenage girl, Denise Mina tells us the story of real-life Paddy Meehan, a professional criminal who was nicely fitted up by the police for a murder that he did not commit. Eventually, after some crusading journalism and a 1976 book by Ludovic Kennedy, Meehan's conviction was overturned. Mina interviewed him when she was a law student.

As an evocation of time, place, and atmosphere, this book is, I am sure, the equal of any Booker shortlisted book, but it is also, fortunately, much more. Because it's a crime novel we have a good strong narrative thread, and we are spared the arty-farty fancypants bullshit.

We learn, of course, that children do not commit systematic, deliberate, and brutal murder without having first had some very nasty things done to them. The cycle, as is now well understood, is self-perpetuating.

Strongly recommended, but it's dark stuff. It remains to be seen how the series develops, but I will certainly be having a look in due course.

More on the author's web site.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A summer of smart publicity

Ian Rankin has been awfully busy this summer, and has generated lots of newspaper inches by a few well timed and well placed remarks. The cleverest thing about this personal drum-beating is that it all seems, superficially, to be about other people. But note, if you will, that I. Rankin Esquire, creator of Rebus, gets lots of mentions along the way.

First there was the Val McDermid business, noted here on Sunday. Wouldn't surprise me if Ian and Val cooked that one up over a couple of drinks.

Then there was his statement, made to an audience of 600 at the Edinburgh book festival, that his wife had seen J.K. Rowling back where she started out, namely, scribbling furiously on the text of a new novel in an Edinburgh coffee house. That one worked wonderfully well. See for instance, the Sunday Times.

All of that was smart enough. But hell, it doesn't stop there. The Rowling story turned out to be a double whammy.

When contacted by the Guardian, for further details of the J.K. goes in for crime story, Rankin revealed that he had made the whole thing up. And, once again, the headline is about Rowling, catching everyone's eye. But the picture is of Rankin. (Link from the Bookseller.)

By the way, I got thumped by a feminist commenter last week, for referring to Val McDermid as a big, heavy, butch-looking lesbian, all of which she undeniably is. 'I notice you don't comment on Rankin's looks,' said LizH, with an audible sniff, before flouncing off to check up on some other sexist blogger.

Well, OK, since then I've done some research. And I can now reveal (exclusively) that Ian Rankin is actually an albino dwarf. Three foot six in his Addabit shoes (as endorsed by Tom Cruise). Not many people know that.

Yes, I do realise that he doesn't look like an albino dwarf, in his newspaper pictures. That's because he uses a body double for his publicity photos and public appearances. You would too, if you had to stand on a box and buy several items from Max Factor every time you wanted to make a speech.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The joy of subsidy and other myths

You may have gathered that I do not approve of the subsidy of the arts from public funds. It's not a simple matter, but basically that's my view. Also, I am usually unimpressed by literary reputation.

It is always, I suppose, heartwarming to find people who agree with me; but it is also distressing, frankly (especially for a sensitive chap such as myself, who has led a very sheltered life), to discover the snarling, rabid hatred with which some people despise that which I merely (in my mild-mannered way) dislike.

These thoughts are prompted by a visit to The Lumber Room, where Elberry has posted a piece about literary fame. I particularly like the story about Yeats's response to being told, at four o'clock in the morning, that he'd won the Nobel prize: he opened one eye and said, 'How much?'

But what really catches the eye in The Lumber Room is the comment from one gravely disillusioned Canadian, which runs as follows:

Right on the mark. Living in Canada, where there has never been such an industry in the government support of “approved” fiction writers, I can assure you that the decision making process on all these awards is the same: it is an incestuous butt-fuck procedure.

The group that votes are always the same who have a personal stake in the determined “short list.” Either government supported “businesses” who do no real business, or a certain crew who give or are given government grants. It is all very disappointing.

I will give you an example of the government slash publishing industry in Canada. A few years ago, there was a large book selling chain, by the name of Sandpiper Books. Sandpiper was instrumental in the giving of numerous awards during the 1990s. Sandpiper also received most of its stock from two or three government sponsored publishing houses, one being Coach Hill Press, which continues to operate.

Sandpiper had a nice deal with Coach Hill. Coach Hill provided Sandpiper its stock absolutely free–accepting a cut of the sales, if a book actually sold. If a book did not, then it was returned to Coach Hill with no penalty. This remarkable financial situation was managed because Coach Hill Press received $10 million yearly from
the government to support “Canadian Literature.”

This was nice for selected, approved writers of the Canadian establishment. It appeared, for the general public, that their books were important, as they were on the shelves of dozens of stores across the country. The writers could then pat themselves on the back, gather for important readings and apply for their grants, all with the appearance of being part of the business community.

In 1999 the government pulled three quarters of Coach Hill’s funding. Coach Hill, in turn, could not provide the considerable number of books Sandpiper needed to fill their shelves. Sandpiper went out of business within a few months.

It’s all crap. Every bit of it.

Wanna make a bit of a splash? Get your name in the papers? Sell books? If so, make a provocative statement in a public place on a slow day for news, and the papers will love you for ever. Run with it for weeks, they will.

Example: Ian Rankin (creator of Inspector Rebus) did his best to generate copy with a statement made in an interview last year that women crime writers in general, and lesbians in particular, are more bloodthirsty than men.

'The people writing the most graphic novels today are women,' said Rankin. 'They are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting.'

No one, it seems, took a lot of notice at the time, but Val McDermid is no sort of fool. Come her appearance at the Edinburgh book festival, she trotted out the Rankin quote and beat him up for it. Result: lots of coverage.

I don't wish to be rude or sexist, but McDermid herself is a big, heavy, butch-looking lesbian, as well as a very successful crime writer. If you think that description is rude, all I can say is that (a) she's made no secret of being a lesbian, and (b) I saw her on telly the other night, and she is big, heavy and butch-looking. I sure as hell wouldn't want to annoy her in a dark alley. But she is dead right, of course, when she says that Rankin is talking 'arrant nonsense'.

Try the Guardian. And some comments on the Guardian blog. Link from

June Austin is the author of Genesis of Man, a self-published non-fiction book mentioned here a while back, and she has been spending what seems like a huge amount of time and energy marketing her book. This is the only way, one gathers, to achieve significant sales, though unfortunately the expenditure of time and effort does not guarantee significant sales.

Anyway, June has been slogging away. Like any well organised author, she has her own web site, where you can learn more about her. She works through Authors On-line, which is a provider of services for self-publishers on a POD basis.

June's achievements will sound modest enough compared to those of any even halfway competent trade publisher, but will doubtless make a big difference to her sales. She has managed to persuade book distributors Gardners to handle her book on a sale or return basis, and she has had several reviews in magazines such as Nexus (circulation 100,000). The Self-Publishing Magazine has not only reviewed her, but asked her to write an article for them about how she operates.

How she operates, by the way, involves working her way through a list of Waterstone's and Borders shops, ringing them up, and asking them to stock her book. So far, 1 in 5 of the shops has agreed, and she has been asked to do signings and/or talks in two of them. She plans to start contacting universities shortly.

As I say, time and energy.

The book, by the way, is a sort of antidote to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion.

The BBC reports that staff in an Australian bookshop failed to recognise Stephen King, and when he started to sign copies of his books thought that he was a vandal, defacing the stock.

Well, hey, that's understandable, isn't it? Could happen to anyone. King is only just about the world's biggest-selling author. (Link from Publishers Lunch.) You and I, if we'd seen him at it, we would probably have thought he was just another four-eyed git too.

*, an arm of, has announced the launch of a new online Books on Demand service. The company is no longer charging setup fees for books, audio CDs and DVDs. As a result, 'Authors, filmmakers and musicians can now offer their works to millions of customers on, and via their own free customizable eStore without any inventory, setup fees or minimum orders.'

Publishers Lunch tells us that a publisher has discovered the wheel.

In a letter to agents and authors, Random House Audio Group publisher Madeline McIntosh has put forward the amazing idea that digital rights management systems are no help to anyone and won't work anyway.

Now where have I heard that before?

Friday, August 17, 2007

More short reviews

Martin Rundkvist: Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future

Academia is pretty big business these days. There are many more people earning their living as lecturers and professors than there ever have been before, and they all prosper according to the extent to which they publish the results of their 'original research'.

Sorry. Excuse my absence for the last five minutes, but I had to gather myself together after laughing uncontrollably. Tears dripped on to the keyboard and caused a temporary short.

Where was I? Oh yes, talking about the need to publish research. Yes, you see, academics need to write 'papers', of one sort or another, and get them published, preferably in reputable journals which are 'refereed' (as it's called) by world-class performers in that particular field of enquiry, such as physics or economics. The more papers they write, the more likely they are to get promoted, and the more likely their universities are to become prestigious, and hence rich and powerful.

You may think that's a crude overstatement but it ain't. Here in England, academics, and their departments, are actually subjected to periodic assessment, on a points-scoring basis. Money is handed out accordingly. If you haven't published much, your career withers and dies, your head of department will hate you, other departments will talk about closing you down and taking all your student places and badly used resources for their own excellent purposes.... And so forth.

What fun it all is. Hence it has been known for decades that academics need journals. Robert Maxwell was the first to recognise, at least forty years ago, that there was a market here. So he created lots of new academic journals, through his firm Pergamon Press. Academics insisted that their libraries should stock them, naturally. And then Cap'n Bob put the price up. And up. And up. And up. And sued anyone who objected for libel.

Which brings us to the collection of papers which Martin Rundkvist has edited, Scholarly Journals between the Past and the Future (ISBN 978-91-7402-368-8; and ISSN 0348-1433). This is a collection of papers delivered at a conference at the premises of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters and Antiquities in April 2006.

The main theme of this collection is the change, or potential change, from paper to online publishing. This has, as you will appreciate, substantial implications, not least for the publishers of paper journals. The publishers -- some of them -- have been making very juicy profits here for decades, and now it looks as if it might all go out of the window.

There are also massive implications for librarians. If everything, or even major chunks of it, is made available online, there will no longer be a need for miles and miles of shelving, as the years of thick, heavy volumes accumulate. Those who make a penny or two from binding 12 monthly issues into one volume will also lose out. And so on.

My guess is that we will move steadily towards the online model, and a damn good thing too. But whatever happens it will be necessary to maintain 'standards'. In other words, even an online journal will still need to be refereed by leaders in the field. Otherwise how will anyone know which journals are prestigious, and which researchers deserve to be given the most money to go on producing more and more papers, and pounding out research and...

What's that? Teaching. Oh yes. Somebody does some teaching. Somewhere. Can't immediately think who, but there must be a few grad students giving lectures. I think. Somewhere. Ask the Bursar.

Jim Kelly: The Skeleton Man

Jim Kelly first turned up about five years ago with The Water Clock, a crime novel which was reviewed here on 4 May 2004. I see that I also covered his second, The Fire Baby, on 11 January 2005. Another book, The Coldest Blood, won the CWA Bodies in the Library Dagger, and The Skeleton Man is actually Kelly's fifth. All of these books are set in the same place and feature the same detective.

The setting is the Fen country in the east of England. This is territory that I know well, but I can't say that I like it much. It is flat country, much of it reclaimed from the sea: treeless, featureless, and to my eye sinister. A ten-foot mound is a hill, and likely to be the site of a church. Houses are few, the people inbred and suspicious. Much of the land is below sea-level, and held back by inadequate defences (a bit like New Orleans); and even if you can't see it you are conscious (well I am, anyway), of the sea's presence over the horizon. As often as not the sea, when you do see it, is steely-grey and malevolent, like some cruel monster, just waiting to take back what it owns. (Last major flood: 1953).

Kelly's detective is a journalist, Philip Dryden, who comes complete with a wife in a wheelchair and a taxi driver as his Watson.

Right up my street then. In a way. But for the first 80 pages or so I wondered if Kelly was having an off day, because it was all a bit pedestrian and, frankly, dull. But then things perked up markedly, and from then on I had no complaints. The ending strains the old credulity a bit -- but hey, the main man's a journalist, right? And we all know that journalists will do anything for a story.

English crime fiction of a high order. And Kelly has some competition, because Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham set books in this sort of area.

This is a very nicely printed book, by the way. Royal octavo, 13.5/16 pt Garamond.

James Aach: Rad Decision

These are supposed to be short reviews, and we're not doing very well so far, so let's do better.

Rad Decision is a novel written by an author who worked in the US nuclear-power industry for twenty years, and it's about -- naturally -- espionage and disaster in the real world of atomic energy.

If you've got an uncle or a grandad who's a retired engineer, and doesn't read novels because they're arty-farty and time-wasting, then this might be just the thing for his birthday present. More details on the book's web site.

Rosemary Ingham: Where the Truth Lies

Hmm. Not sure that I approve of this one, in principle.

The problem is, you see, that I have always considered it bad policy to write a novel about an institution in which you have yourself spent time. Yes, yes, I know the old adage about 'Write what you know'. But I have always taken the view that it's much better -- not to mention safer -- to write pure fiction, if necessary doing lots of research.

The danger lies, you see, in our old friend the law of libel. I don't want to tempt fate, but it says on the dust jacket of this one (a Macmillan New Writing book, by the way) that Rosemary Ingham, now retired, was formerly the Head of an English comprehensive school (= high school, for Americans). And what's her novel about? It's about the head of a comprehensive school.

Isabel Lincoln, single parent of teenage children, has a tough job running a London comprehensive. Her Deputy may be plotting against her. Her Second Deputy shares her bed. And then there are problems with teenage girls...

All very skilful and interesting I dare say. An intriguing exploration of truth and falsehood, professional conflicts, and a lot more. But the modus operandi makes me nervous. No matter how carefully you avoid (you hope) describing real people, by changing their age, hair colour, gender, sexual orientation, people who knew you will still say: Oh yes, that's really a portrait of old Bloggins.

And if you make old Bloggins a villain, when in real life he was a pussy cat.... It's far worse. All one can depend upon, or hope for, is that Bloggins may not recognise himself.

The English playwright Ben Travers only once portrayed a real person in his plays -- an ex-Army man, Colonel (we'll call him) Smithers -- and it troubled his conscience. One day Travers was out walking and he saw the Colonel approaching him. His heart sank, especially when the Colonel demanded a word.

'Now look here, Travers,' spluttered the Colonel, 'I've seen that new play of yours, and I must say I take exception to it. Anyone can see that the military chappie in your play is based on Major Robertson, down the road, and I think that's going too far. Don't do it again.'

Travers promised, on his honour, that he never would.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sheikh it about

Lori at Bonusbooks has been keeping an eye on the cowardy-custard behaviour of Cambridge University Press, mentioned here recently.

CUP, you will recall, pulped a book, apologised, and paid over some money. Why? Because a Saudi billionaire threatened to sue the arse off them via England's libel laws.

Not surprisingly, this has attracted some attention worldwide. Latest comment appears in the Weekly Standard. This retells the story, and quotes the two authors of Alms for Jihad, the book which has generated the row.

The book's authors are Americans, and one of them points out that 'the British and American libel laws are as different as night and day.'

The Weekly Standard's article also looks back at similar cases involving this same Sheikh of Araby. There are, apparently, at least 36 of them. Either this man is much maligned, and the innocent victim of a hate campaign, or else he's got something to hide. Um... Scratches head and thinks hard. Which could it be?

There is further discussion of this worrying situation on Hot Air. And there is also a really intriguing right-wing view of the affair on Human Events, which describes itself as 'Leading the [US] Conservative Movement since 1944'. The author of the article is a Mr McCarthy. No, you mustn't laugh.

Well, all I can say is that things have come to a pretty pass if the Conservative right-wing finds itself obliged to defend the liberal press establishment. In this case, the argument seems to be that the bastards don't deserve to be defended, really, but a chap with principles has to make certain things clear. And the conclusion?

It is crucially important to our development of a sound national counterterrorism policy that good-faith journalists are not silenced by Saudi intimidation. American courts ought to crack down on Mahfouz’s pettifoggery and make him feel the consequences of his litigiousness.... Moreover, the current administration or the next one, regardless of party, should be diplomatically pressing the Saudis to desist from, and the Brits to bar libel tourism directed at, American journalists.

Whether or not the American media deserve such protections, the American people surely do.

As a final comment, perhaps it's worth mentioning that those who (ab)use the UK libel laws on a regular and persistent basis, mainly to cover up things they don't want anyone to know, eventually discover that the effect is quite the reverse. Example: Robert Maxwell, a heavyweight bully who distributed writs at the least provocation. A few years of that, and people twig what is going on. What is more, they begin to poke around in your affairs even more intrusively. The outcome? Wasn't there something about a yacht?

The Creative Commons blog alerts me to a new site where you can find short stories, and more, published under a Creative Commons licence. Titled Ten Car Train, the web site's mission statement tells readers that 'You should read these pieces in their entirety while at work or when someone is paying you to do something else.'

So far so good. However.... It seems that the web site's offerings are provided by a group of former MFA students, which may be a slight drawback, and I can see no immediate way for anyone else to post stuff there.

Edmond Clay, author of the Eros and Psyche dialogue, points out to me a poem about the English language. Several sources on the web; here's one from Humble Apostrophe, a site which also has all sorts of other stuff about the language.

The poem is modestly amusing, but would be best employed, I think, as an aid to those who teach English as a foreign language.

By the way, Keith Chapman aka Chap O'Keefe, the author of Misfit Lil, reviewed here Wednesday, points me to a few interesting bits and pieces.

Coincidentally to my piece about The New Intimacy, writer Candice Proctor/C. S. Harris has run a couple of posts on her blog: 'Are Book Trailers the New Blog?' (1 August) and 'Book Videos, Part Two' (2 August).

Keith also liked the Newsweek piece about Elmore Leonard, and his forthcoming Ten Rules of Writing, which should indeed be a fun read. Newsweek's favourite among the rules was: 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.'

Newsweek also went on to give Leonard's selection for 'My five most important books'. Among them was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Keith Chapman adds that aspects of his latest Misfit Lil story, Misfit Lil Fights Back, were also inspired by Hemingway, in his case the famous short story The Killers; this was filmed in 1965 starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Hemingway (wherever he is) and movie buffs won't recognize the characters or the setting in Keith's western, but some points of the plot situation confronting the unorthodox Miss Lilian Goodnight may be familiar.

For those who want to learn more about the Robert Hale western series, including info on the cover designs, there's an online bi-monthly magazine, Black Horse Extra. Try the Hoofprints section.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Short reviews

They deserve longer, but...

Ken Gelder: Popular Fiction

In a lifetime of reading (or, more often, dipping into) academic books about the novel, I have found only a handful which are of the slightest practical value. This is one of them, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who is either writing or publishing commercial fiction.

The subtitle of Ken Gelder's Popular Fiction is 'The logics and practices of a literary field.' The publisher is Routledge. There's a hardcover version (£50 in the UK) and a paperback (£15.99). The book first appeared in 2004. Ken Gelder teaches at the University of Melbourne.

While I am enthusiastic about the contents of Popular Fiction, I have a heartfelt and bitter complaint to make about the publisher.

In the first place, the print is too damn small. What the hell is it -- eight point? Nine if it's lucky. Far too small, anyway. And all done to reduce costs, of course. The result is a nasty, cheap, shoddy piece of work which is a disgrace to its publisher and does no favours to the author.

And don't lecture me about how hard it is to make academic books pay. I know all about that. I ran an academic publisher for about ten years. In that time, I tried not to publish a book unless I thought it would still be read in fifty years, and since it would be read several decades hence I made sure it was printed in a format which would last.

The cover is no better than the insides. A book about popular fiction -- even an academic book -- surely offers an opportunity to feature a lurid cover: something from a 1930s gangster novel, or a bodice-ripping romance. But no - no one at Routledge had the wit to think of that.

There is much in this book which runs counter to the perceived wisdom of the Eng. Lit. brigade. For example, the author supports the view that romantic fiction should not sensibly be viewed as escapist. Gelder quotes with approval the idea that it is feminism which is remote from women's lives, not romance. 'Romance,' he says, 'can indeed sit closer to women readers' actual lives and aspirations than one might at first imagine.'

Good on yer, Ken.

Chap O'Keefe: Misfit Lil Fights Back

What a terrific name for a character, eh?

This book belongs to an endangered species: the western. It's published by Robert Hale, who is one of the few remaining publishers who still dabble in this genre.

Hale is a firm which sells (I would guess) almost exclusively to the UK library market, which these days has dwindled almost to vanishing point. Hale have always laid down pretty tight specifications for their books. Forty years ago the preferred length was 55,000 words, and this one is about 35,000 -- presumably, as with the book above, to keep costs down. What is more, I see that all the other recent westerns put out by Hale are the same length: 160 pages.

The binding is a sort of hardback -- one of those library bindings in which the cover illustration is laminated on to the card covers. Incidentally, the cover illustration is terrific too.

As for the story: totally professional, as you would expect, and a lot of fun. By my count, Misfit Lil Fights Back is the author's sixteenth book, so he knows how to do the job. Ms Lil has appeared in the series before, and doubtless will again.

Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick is a bigger name now than he was when he died, in 1982. In recent years his work has been 'discovered' by Hollywood, leading to movies such as Blade Runner and Total Recall.

The Man in the High Castle is often spoken of as Dick's best novel. It is the only one of his books to win a Hugo award (for best science-fiction novel), and according to Wikipedia it is considered a defining novel of the alternate history sub-genre. (I prefer the term alternative history myself.)

The novel (first published in 1962) asks us to assume that America was on the losing side in World War II, and that the Japanese control the western parts of America, while the Germans dominate the east. It's an intriguing premise, and Dick certainly makes the most of it.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which he manages to convey the fact that his American citizens, now firmly under the thumb of the Japanese, have unconsciously adopted as their norm a manner of speech which reflects the way in which the Japanese speak English.

Dick being Dick, of course, he also throws in all sorts of other ideas. He offers a reference to an alternative-history novel in which Roosevelt, instead of being assassinated (as in Dick's book), survives and makes America strong again, so that Germany and Japan actually lose the war. Complicated, isn't it?

Mr Dick's universe is also one in which Goebbels was a novelist. And funnily enough, I find that it's true -- in our universe. I never knew that before.

Mark Gatiss: The Devil in Amber

This is an odd one.

Mark Gatiss is a British comedy actor, one of the team in The League of Gentlemen. And now he writes novels. The blurb of this one describes him as the twenty-seventh most dangerous man in Islington -- a title for which there is, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of competition.

The Devil in Amber is an affectionate... what? Spoof? Pastiche? Take-off? Tribute to? In any case, it is written in the style of, and in homage to, the kind of 1920s and 1930s thriller which was written by such writers as Sapper. It's a thriller -- described on the title page as a shocker -- and it's the second book to feature Gatiss's hero, Lucifer Box.

Box is a kind of precursor of Bond. Unlike Bond he is bisexual, and extremely active with it. Not only is the text written in 1920s style, but the spelling follows suit: school-girl, for instance, with a hyphen. And we get unusual words, such as frowst. In other words, what we have here is an unusually literate and intelligent author with a serious command of the language and the medium.

Given the author's history, we should not be surprised to find that he summons up some very strange characters indeed. Mrs Croup is my favourite: a sort of geriatric Rosa Klebb, when needs must, and randy with it.

There are many built-in tributes to other great thriller writers of the period in which this book is set. Box's servant, for example, is much the same person as Albert Campion's Lugg, only female.

It's all schoolboy stuff, but extremely well done of its kind and consistently entertaining. Very English, however, and it helps if you read widely as a schoolboy some sixty or seventy years ago.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Oh woe

What have I always said? Hmm? Writing is never easy. When faced with the urge to write something, you should always do what Sir Billy Butlin used to do when feeling the urge to take some exercise: lie down until the feeling wears off.

If you live in England, the writing of anything is complicated by the laws of libel. As indicated here in more posts than I care to contemplate, writing either fiction or non-fiction is a hazardous business from that point of view.

Peter Carter-Ruck was England's most famous and successful libel lawyer. His advice to writers was simple. To be certain that you will never be liable to pay damages for libel, you should 'refrain from writing, printing or publishing or distributing any written matter of whatsoever nature.'

You may have thought, in your innocence, that if you stuck to non-fiction you wouldn't have any trouble. After all, a fact is a fact, right?

Wrong. As usual. In America the laws on libel are less stringent than they are here -- or so one has been led to believe; hence libel tourism -- but apparently there is now a growing movement towards being super cautious and careful and checking everything and getting permission from everyone, and... Oh, forget it.

For a prime example, visit M.J. Rose's blog, where guest writer Dr Susan O'Doherty describes, in painful detail, what it feels like to be messed around by people who have been reading the health and safety handbook and taking it seriously.

That way lies madness. As I say, lie down until you feel better.


I get an email telling me that I might like to look at, which offers the opportunity to download term papers, essays and the like. Presumably this is a service for students who want someone else to do the work for them. Those who write the term papers, essays, et cetera, earn some income from the site, varying according to the popularity of what they have written. The home page says that 109,077 writers are earning royalties already.

So, OK, not too impressed so far, but I go to the page which offers essays on novels. And the first item which comes up (on my visit) is an essay about Tolstoy's War and Peace. And the extract, which is supposed to entice me to read more, goes as follows:
In the novel what has been done for our present and future generations are a great asset for human civilization for peace and conflict resolving.
Hmm. Shome mishtake here, shurely, I think to myself. So, mad impetuous fool that I am, I click to read more. And it really doesn't get any better.

I decide to sample the History section, and I come across a piece on Germany and the Second World War. I am not kidding when I say that I've read essays by twelve-year-old boys which were better than this. Much. English is evidently not the author's first language. Neither is anything else, by the looks of it.

In the old days, what did you do if your business went bust? You started again in your wife's name.

Something similar seems to have happened to Aultbea Publishing, mentioned here many a time, usually with a sigh. The operation seems to have resurfaced as Script Publishing Ltd.

Libby Rees is still listed as one of the authors. She, you may recall, wrote a 'book' about how she coped with her parents' divorce. Six-year-old Christopher Beale, on the other hand, seems to have vanished, as has the young lady who started it all off, Emma Maree Urquhart. Charles Faulkner is again listed as Owner.

Funnily enough, the firm's latest publication, by three brothers, hasn't attracted the national publicity that many other Aultbea authors enjoyed. Can Mr Faulkner be losing his touch?

Not that I mind being called a pompous ass, but I am intrigued as to who might be organising a little campaign in defence of John Twelve Hawks. People, you see, are still writing comments in response to my less than impressed review of The Traveller, even though it appeared nearly two years ago.

Or perhaps I am over-sensitive. Perhaps these comments are not being orchestrated at all. Perhaps it's because of Google. I just typed "John Twelve Hawks" into Google, and my 2005 post came out fifth in a list of 142,000 references. Go figure.

A similar situation applies in relation to Kathy O'Beirne. Type her name into Google and my post of 20 September 2006 comes out top of 61,100. I think this is probably a function of the fact that Blogger is owned by Google.

The Sunday Telegraph advises you to sell your WH Smith shares. 'The retail sector is not a good place to be at the moment... Although WH Smith management, under chief executive Kate Swann, has an excellent track record of delivering profit, observers point out that UK high street sales remain weak.'

Dale Slamma tells us that the Australian Society of Authors is none too amused by the actions of Angus and Robertson (see last Thursday).

In the late nineteenth century, Professor Meiklejohn wrote An Outline of the History of English Literature. My copy is the twentieth edition, 1905. In a general clearout of old books, I am about to get rid of it.

Before dumping it, however, I noticed that I had particularly marked page 51. This tells the story of William Collins (1721-1759), a poet and friend of Dr Johnson. His Odes, says the Professor, appeared in 1747. 'The volume fell still-born from the press: not a single copy was sold; no one bought, read, or noticed it. In a fit of furious despair, the unhappy author called in the whole edition and burnt every copy with his own hands.'

And yet, Meiklejohn adds, this book was, with the single exception of the work of Burns, 'the truest poetry that had appeared in the whole of the eighteenth century.'

There must be a moral here somewhere. If only I could work out what it is.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Failure, widgets, and more

A while back I mentioned a forthcoming interview with Josh Giddings, the author of Failure, on NPR's 'Weekend Edition Sunday'. Now he tells me that scheduled interview with has been cancelled due to a family emergency just suffered by the host, Liane Hansen. This is an almost inevitable fate, one might think, for a book entitled Failure.

Over at Jane Holland's blog, she recently published a piece about whether one should write in the white-hot heat of passion, so to speak, or whether it's best to write with a more detached, objective approach. I'm a supporter of the latter method myself, as is she, but the former has its advocates.

One of the commenters on Ms Holland's essay is Edmond Clay, who refers you across, by way of example, to his own imagined dialogue between Eros and Psyche.

Also, if you've ever wondered about the backstory of Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, Edmond (writing as The Griffin), has an answer.

On the same Eros and Psyche web page you will also find links to two sets of hints on how to win the love of a woman.

Long-tail theory tells us that no matter how obscure or specialised your taste (Gor novels, anyone? Westerns?) there is a book for you somewhere. Suppose, for example, you fancy reading a free-verse novel about Californian werewolves. No problem, sir or madam, Mr Rundkvist has found one for you. Further information about Sharp Teeth can be found in the New Statesman.

John Howard's success may give some encouragement to self-publishers. His children's book The Key to Chintak has enjoyed substantial sales (for a self-published book) in the UK. Nielsen Bookscan's data show it as the second best selling children's paperback amongst small publishers in the second quarter of last year. The Nielsen's Small Publisher list contains the likes of Faber so John is well pleased.

Furthermore, Chintak was the only self-published book in the top 500 for the whole year, finishing in 25th place. It is worth pointing out that in addition to the sales recorded by Nielsen, John sold just as many books again direct into schools, libraries, independents, book clubs, et cetera.

Now he has sold Italian rights to Mondadori. Details of this, and a lot more, on his web site.

I've only ever had one widget, and it didn't work so the hell with 'em. You may be more tolerant. Now you can get one which gives you videos of authors talking. Coming soon: authors who juggle, authors who tap dance, authors who cook spaghetti for their Italian mothers-in-law....

Once there was (and probably still is) a series of children's books called Write Your Own Adventure. This allowed kids to have a story go in whichever direction they preferred. Now adults can do it too, through interactive fiction as offered by Malinche Entertainment.

Despite what is said above, some videos which are developed to arouse interest in books are works of art in themselves. To see a quite exceptional piece of computer graphics, take a look at the video created by Ian Irvine's son Simon, to publicise the latest book about Runcible Jones.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The arrogance of Angus and Robertson

This snippet deserves a post of its own.

Periodically there are rows in the UK about the charges that the big book chains impose upon publishers if the publishers want their books to have any kind of prominence. See, for example, my post of 26 October 2004.

Now there's one hell of a row in full spate in Australia -- reported by the Sydney Morning Herald. Angus and Robertson get a smart kick in the balls in response to their arrogance. So far, as I write this, 68 steaming comments. Many more, I suspect, by the time you read this.

Link from Anastasia.

Mostly cobblers but sometimes not

Aaron Shepard is a smart cookie. Mentioned here as the author of Aiming at Amazon, and other books, he has also developed a software tool for checking your sales position on Amazon. What's more, he has got himself featured in the New York Times. And, as you would expect from a smart cookie, he has a pile of Aiming at Amazon books right where the camera will see them. Oh yes.

The NYT story is mostly cobblers, with its claim that 'many' writers can't get on with writing because they're obsessively checking their ranking -- but hey, this is a newspaper story, right? What the hell do you expect?

One of my books is listed with a sales rank of 4,457,051. I didn't think Amazon listed as many books as that. And it's got a five-star review, too. No, I didn't. That would be naughty.

If you care about writing for the theatre (and there is life outside books, you know), you should keep an eye on Michael Coveney's blog. Coveney is a former theatre critic of the Daily Mail. He was recommended to me by Madame Arcati, who knows everyone, of course. Coveney writes about the UK theatre scene, but it's also relevant in you live in the US (I guess), as London seems to provide quite a lot of Broadway product.

If you care about the Booker -- and I must confess that I don't -- then you should know that details of the 2007 long list have been published. Articles in most papers, but here's the Guardian.

When reading some of the publicity details of these books, I am struck, not for the first time, by the wonder of it all. Most of the long-listed books are published by 'major' companies, whose primary objective, naturally, is to make profits. But, if you set aside the remote chance of one of these books winning the Booker, then publication begins to look like an act of charity rather than a rational commercial decision.

Who, for instance, would ever bother to read The Gathering, by Irish author Anne Enright? It's described by the Observer as 'a gruelling portrait of a dysfunctional Dublin family', and is praised for its 'exhilarating bleakness of tone'. Bleakness of tone? Exhilarating? Personally I would have to be paid a substantial fee even to contemplate it.

What saves the publishers' bacon, of course, is the bizarre illusion, fostered on a thousand and one Eng. Lit. courses, that literary fiction is somehow superior to any other kind, and that to be seen reading such is to increase one's standing with one's fellow men. Public endorsement by the Booker judges somehow enhances this effect, leading people to expend money which could much better be spent on a round of drinks for a few friends.

Truth is, of course, that, for some of us, the sight of someone reading a Booker nominee merely generates a politely suppressed snigger. We nudge our friends. 'Look,' we say. 'Another sucker.'

Monday, August 06, 2007

Fair's fair

It takes all sorts.

I read in the Publishers Lunch newsletter that Richard Curtis (a smart NY agent) has sold (actually resold) John Norman's 26 Gor books to Rob Simpson of Dark Horse Books.

The books are described by PL as a 'controversial science fiction world chronicling dominant men and submissive women', the action taking place on the imaginary planet Gor.

The phrasing made me smile a bit. I have never read a Gor novel, but they're famous in a modest sort of way. There is, for instance, a web site set up by and for fans of the series: it grew out of one woman's (note that, please) love for the series. But what amuses me (somewhat) is the way people wriggle and squirm when discussing these novels.

The Gor books began to appear in 1967, and they soon centred on the sado-masochistic relationship between men and women on the planet Gor. Actually it would be more accurate (apparently) to speak of the relationship between men and slave girls on the planet Gor.

Eric Lindh's essay on the series gives you a reasonably concise insight into what is on offer, and it nicely illustrates the difficulty which nice, decent, law-abiding, church-going liberals have with this kind of thing.

On the one hand, our nice et cetera liberals believe in a free press and free speech, and they oppose censorship and so forth. But here we have a series which, to quote Lindh, 'orbit[s] around uncomfortably nasty sexual humiliation of women. Sure, this has been an (often implied) element of most weird heroics, from Conan on, but Norman goes over the line that many readers would find acceptable. Elaborate set pieces of sexual torture and slavery are the essential core of the stories; they are not plot devices insomuch as they become the plot. Sadism, rape, and violence are repeated ad nauseum (sic).'

And yet, you see, Lindh also feels it necessary to point out (because he is a fair-minded nice et cetera liberal) the following uncomfortable fact: 'The creepy thing is that Norman has touched quite a chord out there. The books are tremendously successful, and not just among men. A bookseller who hazarded some statistics had at least half of his sales being made to women.'

Oh dear oh dear. This is all very distressing, isn't it? At least it is if you're one of the many who haven't yet got their head round the general principle.

And the principle is this: If you want to publish your own work uncensored -- unmodified by political correctness, religious dogma, or any one of a thousand other forces which are all too ready to interfere with what you have to say -- then you have to accept that the reciprocal applies. It other words, you have to accept that other people are going to write, publish, and read, material of which you heartily disapprove. Simple as that.

But oh what heartache it causes.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Portents and examples to us all

I have remarked here more than once that the unpublished writers who plaster their work with large copyright signs, and warnings that their precious manuscript must not be xeroxed without permission, are simply labelling themselves as rank amateurs.

There is a serious copyright problem, and I would not wish to underestimate it, but it doesn't concern the unpublished. And for an inkling of how big this problem is, see the report in the International Herald Tribune, about various fake Harry Potters in Chinese. (Link from Seoul Man and David Isaak.)

The article concentrates on young Harry, but my guess is that there is an equally big problem about the piracy of textbooks, particularly in science and technology.

Piracy on this scale can only be tackled by big-time publishers with enough money to pay for big-time international intellectual-property lawyers. The average writer can safely forget all about it.

The average writer's main problem is obscurity, not the theft of copyright.

If you're interested in the Old West and the Wild West, then Celia Hayes has just the book for you. Based on real-life events, To Truckee's Trail tells the story of an early group of pioneers on the California wagon-train trail.

More news on Celia's other books can be found on her web site.

Dr Tanya Byron is a UK Clinical Psychologist, specialising in the care of children. Unlike many 'experts' she is eminently respectable and sensible with it, imho.

Not the least of her virtues, again in my estimation, is the fact that, having hosted a number of very successful TV programmes about handling difficult children, she has recently decided not to do any more, on the grounds that they really aren't very helpful to the children. She will, however, continue to offer advice to parents and others in the columns of the Times.

Meantime, Tanya Byron has a book out soon: Your Child, Your Way appears from Michael Joseph on 6 September. Better then Spock, I would lay odds.

London-based Virgin Books has just opened a new outpost on Bleecker Street (New York). They are about to start publishing original US titles. Their mission, they say, 'is to publish authors -- be they novelists, memoirists, humorists or former hooligans -- who have something new and engaging to say about popular culture. And, being Virgin, we have a special affinity for the up-and-coming, the underdog, and the unconventional.'

The catalog(ue) is available online, of course. (Actually quite a few aren't -- see Mark Thwaite -- thus demonstrating that some publishers have a death wish.) So you can decide for yourself whether Virgin Books US is your thing or not. Personally I just wonder how anyone can find anything 'new and engaging' to say about Princess Diana. But who knows -- maybe the guy has.

Scott Stein is the author of the novel Mean Martin Manning (published by ENC Press), and I must say he is pretty adept at getting himself web and press coverage. He has recently been interviewed by Ed Pettit, who writes book reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia City Paper.

Pettit reviewed Mean Martin Manning in the City Paper back in March, and the interview with Scott Stein is now posted on his blog. It covers the reviewed novel and other subjects that might be of interest -- including the surveillance society, dystopian novels, the writing process, literary influences, and the tyranny of 'public health.'

You may have noticed last week that Cambridge University Press announced that they were withdrawing a book which they had published in 2006. The book in question, Alms for Jihad, by American authors Robert Collins and J. Millard Burr, had recently been the subject of a libel writ in the UK.

Not only have CUP withdrawn the book, but they have also agreed to pay damages, and have issued a formal apology on their website . This states that the authors of the book made 'defamatory allegations' to which there was 'no truth whatsoever.'

The person objecting to this book is Sheik Kalid bin Mafouz, the son of the banker to the Saudi royal family, and you can read about him on Wikipedia.

Well, we have many a time noted here that the UK libel laws favour the rich and so this announcement didn't do much to raise my own blood pressure. Been there, seen it before. Many times. When faced with a litigant who has bottomless financial resources, few publishers can afford to do anything other than cave in. Consider, for example, poor little Arcadia.

While I was unsurprised by the CUP affair, and frankly gave a shrug of the shoulders about this latest proof that money doesn't just talk but screams its bloody head off, Jeffrey Stern, President of US publisher Bonus Books, was very exercised indeed.

You can read Mr Stern's statements on the matter in a press release put out by his company. He takes a very dim view of 'libel tourism', and asks, rather plaintively, 'Whatever happened to freedom of the press?'

Well, pardon me while I indulge in a hollow laugh. But freedom of the press has never really existed in the UK, and certainly doesn't today. Not only are there stringent libel laws, but there is political correctness to contend with, and 10,000 busybodies of one sort or another peering over your shoulder and jumping in fast to complain if you step over what they take to be a line set in concrete. If you criticise anyone, chances are that it interferes with their 'human rights' and they can take you all the way to the European courts about it.

While watching the end of a Poirot TV episode the other day, I found myself wondering whether Poirot was gay. Did Agatha intend him to be thought of as gay? Or is it just that David Suchet, who has played him more often than anyone, seems to suggest (at least to me) that he is?

As I read the performance, Suchet plays Poirot as if he is gay by inclination, but almost certainly too fussy and particular ever to actually do anything. (Cf. Kenneth Williams.) After all, you never know where young men might have been, and one might get stains on one's shirt.

In search of elucidation on this vital issue, I typed "is Poirot gay" into Google, and came up with zilch. "Was Poirot gay" gives the same result. But a search for the two words Poirot + gay produces, as you would expect, some earnest discussion.

David Suchet himself has things to say on the matter. He claims that Poirot is a typical bachelor of his time, the 1930s. Hmm. Maybe. Typical of some, certainly. But to me he is very reminiscent of Kenneth Williams: gay by inclination, but usually far too nervous and fastidious to do anything about it.

* is a web site 'focused on providing compact pieces of fiction for young professional women.' This month, the attention is on mystery stories. Gentlemen who visit should be warned: there's a young woman on the site who is keeping an eye on you.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The New Intimacy

I wonder what Agatha (Christie) or Enid (Blyton) would have thought about this kind of thing. I don't think Agatha would have liked it, anyway.

I speak, of course, about the New Intimacy between readers and writers. It is no longer enough for a writer to sit at home and write the books. Dear me, no. Neither will it suffice for an author to go on the occasional book tour, give readings, and answer questions for a few minutes at the end.

No. Nowadays Web 2.0 interaction is all the rage, my dears. If things go on the way they are, readers are pretty soon going to want to be present when their favourite author buys his underpants, or gets fitted for a new bra.

By way of example, witness the case of Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of The Boleyn Inheritance and The Other Boleyn Girl. On Sunday 16 September, at 2.00 p.m. EDT (you'll have to work out for yourself what this is in Europe), Ms Gregory is hosting a live web event for her fans around the world.

'Never before,' says her publisher, Touchstone, 'has an author such as Gregory participated in an interactive web event of this magnitude.' Oh, but they all will before long -- mark my words.

Philippa Gregory LIVE will feature a 'live simulcast' (whatever that is) of Ms Gregory speaking to an audience in London. She will discuss her historical research; writing process; her latest novel, The Boleyn Inheritance; the upcoming major motion picture based on The Other Boleyn Girl; her next novel, The Other Queen; and where she buys her bras.

If you want to get truly intimate with Philippa you need to register in advance. And it's worth doing, apparently, because 'throughout the one-and-a-half-hour long event, online attendees will have the opportunity to ask Philippa their own questions and interact with other fans and book clubs.'

What fun, eh? Bet all you wannabes just can't wait for it to happen to you. Good luck, kids.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Book Depository

The Book Depository is a UK-based enterprise with world-wide ambitions. Basically, it's a bookselling business. It aims to deliver books to the customer cheap(ish) and fast; and not just today's bestsellers either, but highly obscure books too. It works, as I can testify from a recent test.

To call this enterprise ambitious is an understatement. If you want to know more, take a look at the About Us page on the company's web site.

You will note that the underlying technology is being developed by a team at the University of Bath (one of the UK's better universities, specialising in science and technology), and the research is being part-funded by the UK's Engineering & Physical Science Research Council. What that means, in plain English, is that the underlying science is considered highly respectable and vitally important. The Book Depository is committed to making all programming open source.

The average customer, however, is not going to be too concerned by that. What your typical punter wants is a copy of a given book, at the cheapest possible price, and to have it delivered as near instantaneously as possible. By interacting with other retailers and distributors, the Book Depository seems to be getting as close to that ideal service as anyone could reasonably ask. Their software aims to work out the optimised purchasing route of each isbn, depending on cost, availability and historical service delivery, and then places orders.

Unless I've been more than usually sleepy, the Book Depository has been attracting little public attention. Instead of pumping out bullshit publicity, it's just been developing systems that actually work, and setting up arrangements with other companies, who also want (naturally) to maximise their business.

I first came across the company when I looked for a book on Amazon, and found that the Amazon page showed that the cheapest way to get it was to use the BD. I thought this was very odd, but did not complain, especially when the book arrived the next day.

Independent booksellers will not like me saying all that, however, and the truth, I fear, is that the BD constitutes yet another serious threat to your friendly neighbourhood independent -- and indeed to that favourite secondhand shop of yours, where you cough your way through the dust to unearth (you hope) long-lost treasures. Before long you will find that the BD will have reprinted that 1930 item that you were looking for, and a lot more besides. POD, naturally.

The BD has recently reported 3rd year sales of £24 million, £12 million up on 2005/2006, showing a treble-digit increase for the second year running.

There is a massive amount of material to explore on the BD web site -- too much to describe here. Though you could begin with the very sensible article by Mark Thwaite on the possible death of publishers.

And don't think the BD isn't relevant if you live in the US. At present they are able to ship 700,000 US books from 8 fulfillment centers across America, and the range will doubtless increase fast.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lickerish allsorts

While buying some printer paper in W.H. Smith's on Monday (my normal supplier having run out), I noticed that, if you buy the latest Harry there, you can get a special deal on G.P. Taylor's Wormwood. This latter book is also supposed to be part of a seven-book series, and is described by WHS as 'the perfect partner for Harry Potter'.

According to Publishers Lunch, the Taylor book sold 20,000 copies in the first five hours of this offer, which ain't bad. Particularly as Amanda Craig (a leading children's book critic) -- not to mention my modest self -- came to the conclusion that Mr (actually the Reverend Mr) Taylor has a marked under-supply of talent.

Perhaps this success demonstrates the power of prayer.

Errol Lincoln Uys (pronounced Ace) is using the web as a kind of catalogue of his various books, and, more to the point, book proposals. He is then, as he puts it, 'sending out snail-mail invites asking editors and agents to come visit the site and take a byte.' If you are thinking of doing the same, you might take a look and get some ideas.

Uys's book proposals are not open to just any old web visitor, but the professionals who are contacted by mail are given appropriate passwords for entry.

Let's hear it for the old guys. Welsey Carrington Greayer (on bookshelves he comes between Grafton and Grisham) is old enough to have flown missions over Germany in WWII, and at 87 he has produced The Tornado Struck at Midnight.

Wisely or otherwise, Wesley used PublishAmerica to produce his book. I gather that ten copies offered in his local Barnes and Noble sold very quickly. When Wesley alerted PublishAmerica to this, they responded by pointing out that he could get a 50% discount on orders of 100 or more books.

PublishAmerica is not, perhaps, the first place that I would advise writers to go to when searching for a publisher.

If you've got a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend, the Everyman Library has the perfect birthday present.

* describes itself as 'a new online initiative to get people talking and thinking about books. Developed by Holtzbrinck in Stuttgart and being launched by Macmillan in the English-speaking world, the English-language version has just been rolled out and is currently in beta form. The website is totally not for profit and non-commercial. Lovelybooks lets you create a virtual bookshelf, rate and review books, recommend books and meet new people with similar tastes.'

So. Take a look? As mentioned here a while back, these social-networking sites such as Shelfari et al are said to be the coming thing. Book marketers are very keen on them. Whether they will actually help to sell many books remains to be seen.

Replacing a once-worn hat on my head, I was very interested to see Galleycat's report about experiments in POD et cetera in the university press community.

While buying a loaf of bread yesterday afternoon, I was served by a bloke of about thirty. After handing me my change, he went back to reading a book which was open on the counter in front of him. Being expert in upside-downy, I could see that the running head was Harry Potter.

'Is that the latest?' I enquired.

'Yes,' said my friendly neighbourhood bread man. 'I'm reading it for the second time. It's that good.'

Now -- question: what other book(s) can you think of which would achieve that effect?

Meanwhile, P.J. Parrish concludes (link from M.J. Rose), re the selling-Harry-at-a-loss phenomenon, that 'the book business is just plain whacked-out.'

Dearie, dearie me. Say it ain't so.

If you aren't smart enough to know this already -- and you really ought to be -- then Cory Doctorow, in the Guardian, explains why digital rights management systems are a chimera. (Link from

'DRMs are often designed by ambitious, well-funded consortia, with top-notch engineers from every corner of the industry. They spend millions. They take years. They are defeated in days, for pennies, by hobbyists.'

In similar vein, about the difficulty of trying to prevent things from happening on the internet, Seoul Man has some thoughts on free speech.

Over on Galleycat, James Frey's publisher, Nan Talese, takes a well aimed kick at Oprah Winfrey's ample ass. Worth a few minutes of your time for an insight into how big-time TV operates. What was I saying in my novel last year, and repeating only a few days ago? Everything on TV is faked.