Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ebook cover awards

It seems that The Book Designer web site runs a monthly competition for the best designs for an ebook cover (or e-book cover, as the site chooses to spell it). If you follow this link you will arrive at the page recording the winners for November 2012.

The results make interesting viewing, and almost without exception they confirm my belief that most ebook covers -- or at least those designed by 'professionals' -- are grossly overburdened by information and are generally less than wonderful in meeting what ought to be the design brief.

Anyone with any wit surely knows that ebook covers are going to be viewed mainly in thumbnail form. And that is the key format, because that's the one which determines whether a potential reader cum buyer is going to bother to look at the sales page at all.

But... If you got to Amazon.com, books, fiction, last 30 days, and list by publication date, you get a reasonable set of examples of what is being offered by way of 'design' for the covers of today's new ebook novels. And most of these designs, quite frankly, are bloody useless. Here are three chosen pretty much at random from the first page:

In each case the title and/or author's name is largely illegible, at least to my elderly eyes, and the illustration gives very little clue as to the genre. The one on the left might be a Regency romance, but I wouldn't bet money on it.

My own view (doubtless hopelessly biased) is that any reasonably computer-savvy author can easily design her own cover, and in most cases it will turn out to be at least as good as something commissioned from a professional. Why? Because the professionals (on the evidence of Amazon) seem to be still thinking in terms of mass-market paperback.

All a good ebook cover needs is a highly legible title, highly legible author name, and perhaps an image of some kind to reinforce  the perception of genre which is created (ideally) by the title.

Here's a good example which author Camille Laguire designed for her own book:

Many of the other honorable mentions in this months's Book Designer competition were also designed by the book's author. Go take a look.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Rescue of Bertie's Mummy

Despite my best efforts, there seems to be less and less time for writing these days. However, I have managed to turn out the odd short story. (Odd in more ways than one.) The Rescue of Bertie's Mummy is my latest.

This is a story intended for those who have been given a Kindle (of one sort or another) for Christmas. Such giftees will no doubt be looking for free stuff, so this one will be offered free for 5 days from 24 December. In the meantime it will cost you 99 cents or the equivalent in your local currency.

The narrative begins on Christmas Day, and it involves a little boy who is lost, together with some not very bright policemen (apart from our hero, PC Moreton); and it has a love story with a happy ending.

What more could you possibly want?

This book is the first in what I hope will be a series of 'coffee-time' short stories. That is to say, they will be short enough to be read over a cup of coffee. This one runs to just over 4,000 words.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, while stocks last. Or some such misleading drivel.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Adam Curtis rides again

I have recommended the work of Adam Curtis here before. And if you have any hope (Ha! What an optimist you are!) of understanding the Middle East, then you urgently need to read and watch his latest post.

It is something of a mystery how Mr Curtis comes to be allowed (and presumably encouraged) to poke around in the BBC archives, but his resulting insights are worth ten of any academic tomes on the subject. More power to his elbow and archive-searching, say I.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

David Wesley Hill: At Drake's Command

Some eighty-five years ago, an English novelist by the name of C.S. Forester published the first in a 12-book series about Horatio Hornblower. The books were not written chronologically, in terms of the hero's life, but eventually covered Hornblower's career in the British Navy, from Midshipman to Admiral.

The Hornblower books were set in the age of the Napoleonic Wars, and were enormously successful, both in the US and the UK. They were admired by, among others, both Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill, and yet could easily be read by the average schoolboy. In 1951 a successful film version appeared, starring Gregory Peck in the lead role.

Since then, the idea of a book, and possibly a whole series of books, starring a member of the British Navy in times past, must have been seen by many a publisher and writer as a target worth consideration. Patrick O'Brian began a similar series, with Master and Commander, in 1970. And now David Wesley Hill has taken his turn to have a go.

At Drake's Command is set in the late sixteenth century and is subtitled 'The adventures of Peregrine James during the second circumnavigation of the world'. It's just published by the Temurlone Press, where you can read the first chapter, and it's available in trade paperback format through the usual channels. Early reviews are good.

The naval-fiction genre is a small one, but there is, surprise, a web site devoted to it.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

China Mieville: London's Overthrow

London's Overthrow is a small paperback -- about 7" by 4.5" -- and it runs to about 96 pages, including the prelims and a few photos at the end.

The book is printed on paper which, as in a newspaper, allows the reproduction of a number of the author's colour photographs; these are done in what I take to be a deliberately impressionistic style. The publisher is the Westbourne Press.

The text began life (in a shorter form) as an article in the New York Times in March 2012.

As for China Mieville, who he? Answer, a very distinguished science-fiction writer: he is a three-times winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and has also won the Hugo, World Fantasy and British Science Fiction awards.

And what are we to make of it all? The title suggests that London has been overthrown. And if so, by whom?

Speaking as someone who lives in the provinces, I can only say that, on the rare occasions when I go there, I am struck by the almost complete lack of Londoners. In a restaurant or a hotel, it is rare to be served by someone whose first language in English. As for Cockneys -- damned if I've seen or heard one for decades. Is that circumstance the same as being overthrown? I don't know. But the character of the place has certainly changed, within my own adult lifetime.

Mieville seems to have wandered around this ancient city, poking his nose into obscure as well as famous places, and giving us, not unreasonably, his impressions of what he sees.

Inequality is one such feature. Rich and poor. Forty per cent of London's children live in poverty, he tells us. But poverty by what measure, and whose definition? Certainly nothing remotely comparable with the nineteenth century. All these poor children wear shoes, and I would bet good money that the majority of them carry a phone.

The picture of London that I get from these pages is of a patchwork of cultures. The Brick Lane mosque, for instance, was formerly a synagogue and before that a church. And Mieville suggests, if I read him aright, that Britain is seeing a mutation of its 'traditional' fascism into a form fixated on these new scapegoats.

I don't think I recognise that 'traditional' fascism, though it's an arguable point, I suppose, based on the UK's history of colonies and Empire. The past was indeed pretty vile in some respects. But would we be better off, for instance, with Sharia law? Would our women welcome being forced into arranged marriages, and being chopped into small pieces if they demurred? I hardly think so.

At the very end, Mieville encounters an old Londoner who is pretty depressed by the scene he now surveys. 'It starts this bitterness,' he says. 'Many become hopeless... Well, let us just wait for things to -- for chaos, really to take place.'

This is, I fear, all too realistic an attitude.

Speaking for myself, I am at a loss to explain how it is that the UK has not already descended into interracial violence on a massive scale. I speak here not so much of London as of the great industrial cities of the north. The streets where my mother and father grew up are now solidly Asian. For block after block.

And what do the displaced working-class Brits make of this? They seem to accept it. 'At least,' said my elderly aunt as I drove her past my grandmother's old house, 'they are maintaining it well.' This, mark you, where groups of Asian youths have recently been convicted of grooming underage white girls for sexual exploitation.

What is the explanation for this lack of violence?

Only a supreme optimist could put the present calm down to tolerance and goodwill. It is more likely, I fear, that the educated middle class have given up hope. Everywhere they look there is incurable corruption or incompetence: politics, science, education. As for the banks and big business... Well, words fail. And that's before we even begin to think about the potential of a Eurozone crash wiping out the world's financial system.

And the young -- the ones who might initiate some sort of change -- they seem to live in a state of fugue, made senseless by street drugs, deafening music and the distractions of technology.

Less than fifty years ago, a government-appointed committee, led by Lord Robbins, considered the purposes of higher education, and listed as one of the four most important 'the transmission of a common culture'. The four aims laid down by Robbins were accepted by the government and were built into the Charters of several of the new universities that were created in the 1960s.

But what was 'a common culture'? Did anyone ever know? What are its characteristics? Fair play, honesty, truthfulness...?

Well, if we ever had a common culture, I suggest that our policies on immigration and taxation, to name only a couple, have successfully destroyed it. I do hope that was an accidental result. In 2012, 1 in 4 of the babies born in the UK are to foreign mothers; and in London the number is 6 out of 10.

As usual in his books, Mr Mieville belabours us with long and obscure words; it is a characteristic of his style: tchotchkes, hecatomb, gnosis, quotidian, nonnatives... I have a pretty fair idea of what they mean, or can guess from the context, but these are not words in most people's everyday vocabulary, and I'm not sure that communication is improved by their use here.

The price of this book is £5.99 on Amazon and £7.99 as listed by the publisher. If you seek food for thought, it is here aplenty. But don't blame me if you end up feeling a bit queasy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marek Krajewski and the city of Breslau

Don't know about you, but I'm not exactly short of books to read, so I don't often need to go searching for something new. However, I do keep my eyes open, and occasionally the Saturday edition of the Times (London) runs a column on new crime books. Also, occasionally, science fiction. But I don't think it ever stoops so low as to list new romances.

Anyway, couple of months ago the Times made mention of a new crime novel by Marek Krajewski. Sounded intriguing, so I looked him up.

Krajewski is a former academic who taught at the University of Wroclaw, which is now in Poland. And until 1945 Wroclaw was known as Breslau, and it was part of Germany.

If you live in the eastern part of England, you will have learnt that there is nothing between the east coast and the Urals. Nothing, that is, that would stop or slow down the Russian winter wind. Of course, the wind is not really cold by the time it gets to England. Not cold by Arctic standards. But by God it's pretty bloody chilly by English standards. And the point is, you see, there's just a big flat northern European plain until you get to the Urals.

What that means is that there are no natural boundaries. Hence lots of wars over territory. Hence cities changing hands and names. There are only a few rivers to divide the plain up a bit: Vistula, Oder, Elbe, Weser, Rhine. And although they are pretty big rivers they're not big enough to be much of an obstacle to a determined army. So Poland, for instance, has tended either to be very strong and big (1611, my memory tells me, was the biggest it got, but I may be misremembering), or it has been small and weak.

All of which is a bit of background. What you need to know, relative to Marek Krajewski, is that in the 1920s and 1930s, one particular city was known as Breslau, and was part of Germany, and now it's called Wroclaw and it's in Poland. In 2016, should you care, it's going to be the European City of Culture.

So, it is in his home town of Breslau, in the 1920s and thereafter, that Marek Krajewski has chosen to set his series of crime novels. There are four of them so far, and I understand that there will be a fifth. They are translated from Polish, and the UK publisher is MacLehose, part of Quercus. The UK publisher has given several of the books a striking set of covers by Andrzej Klimowski.

Krajewski's lead character, and series detective, is Eberhard Mock, head of the police, and a complicated fellow indeed. Drinks too much, beats his wife Sophie, and so on. He walks (or, more often, gets driven down) the mean streets, which seem to be lined with brothels, casinos where women have to serve as sex slaves to pay off debts (one of said slaves being, at one point, the unhappy Sophie), and so forth. The place is thick with Nazis, freemasons, debauched aristocrats, and all like that.

Question is, can I wholeheartedly recommend these books? Well, yes. Up to a point. I suspect that you need to be interested in the history of Europe in the twentieth century. You need to keep reading when part of you says surely there must be a more interesting book in my pile. But on the whole, it's a rewarding series. Perhaps, if it doesn't sound snobby, one could say that these books are for crime-fiction connoisseurs. I've read two so far, and intend to keep going.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dean Wesley's Smith's words of wisdom

Some months ago I stumbled across the blog written by American author Dean Wesley Smith. Dean also has a web site which describes his thirty-year (and counting) career as a writer. Most of his output has, of course, been published in the pre-digital era, and the total so far is over 90 novels and 100 short stories. So he's a man of some experience.

I find that Dean has a habit of publishing blog posts which say exactly what I would say if I had the time and the energy (in addition to doing some fiction writing), so I thought I would just link to his sites and leave it to you to explore as you wish (or not).

If you are a wannabe writer, or even a published author with a book that you are trying to promote, there is much here for you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. (That last bit, by the way, is a quote from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, 1662 version. You may think it's a bit poncey of me to quote such stuff, but I heard it in church many times in my schooldays and it has kind of stuck. In any case, it neatly encapsulates my thinking, and advice, on Mr Smith's dicta.)

Dean's view is that the main thing you need to do as a writer is produce a substantial body of work. Stop pissing around, stop reading all that twitter rubbish, and get your head down for a solid ten years or so.

What prompted me to write this little recommendation was Dean's post of 15 October 2012. In it, he notes that all the professional marketing skills in the world will not help you if your novel is not, actually, very good. I have the distinct impression that one effect of the digital revolution is that some readers are not much influenced by reputation. In fact they may not even care that you have one. All they care about is the story. Does it grip at the start? Does it continue to hold their attention? There are numerous examples nowadays of ebooks which are, by normal publishing standards, semi-literate and unpublishable, yet they sell to readers who aren't too fussy about all that spelling and punctuation stuff but just wanna read a good story -- on their smartphone or tablet or whatever. Books? What are they? Oh, those funny square things people carry around.

Anyway, here's the sort of thing Dean has to say, and it's just as true of me as it is of him:
Folks, sorry, but if you have only written one novel or few short stories, promoting a pile of crap just won’t help you.

And trust me, I wrote some really heaping, steaming piles of crap when I started out. We all do. And my piles of crap were pretentious because I came from a poetry background and thought I knew everything about writing. They were rewritten to death because I believed that was the way to create art. They had zero thought to the art of storytelling or what a reader on the other side might be thinking when reading it.

They stank up the place and I had no idea at the time.

Looking back, I have no idea what would have happened to me at that point in the 1970s when I wrote those early stories if I had the modern world of easy access to publishing. I imagine I would have published and promoted them to death and wondered why readers were so stupid as to not understand my great art.

Luckily I didn’t, so I just sent them to editors who paid no attention and sent me form rejections.
Yup. Me too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A few words in front

This morning I read a blog post by an author who said he'd been asked, some time ago, to write a 'forward' to a book. (I'm inclined to doubt it, but who knows.) Anyway, he did his bit, sent it in, forgot about it, and was then surprised when a copy of the book arrived complete with a 'Foreward' by him.

To which my ungrateful and unimpressed response was, make your fucking mind up, sunshine. If you're going to get it wrong, please get it wrong consistently.

Now I know Americans do things different, as they do in Norfolk, but surely there is no disagreement on this one, is there?

It's a foreword, folks. It's a little intro which goes before the body of the book.

And the spelling does not seem to be in dispute, as evidenced here, and here, and here, and here....

Yes, I know. Ought to get out more, wrong side of bed, grumpy old bugger, better things to do with his time...

But it's all about communication. About the smooth and unhindered transfer of facts and ideas from one human to another. And such smooth transfer is not aided if some of us have to break off from reading and go bang our heads against the nearest wall.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The teenage writer sensation revisited

A day or two ago I noticed yet another variant on the familiar tale of a dramatically young writer being hailed as a sensation. And I thought to myself with a weary sigh, Oh dear. Here we go again.

And yet, on closer examination, the detailed story in this case turns out to be a little different. This time it may not spell, as it so often has in the past, disaster for a young person who is entirely undeserving of such a nasty fate.

Here's the story so far. And it turns out to be a month old, though I have only just noticed it. HarperFiction, says booktrade.info, acquires 17 Year Old Debut Novelist. Perhaps they don't like hyphens at HarperCollins, and they don't seem quite sure whether they are HarperCollins or HarperFiction, come to that; but let us not nitpick as if we were a grumpy old Englishman with peculiar views about the teaching of punctuation (if any) in modern schools.

It was the headline about the dazzling young writer which made my heart sink a bit. And to suggest why, allow me to mention the case of Jenn Crowell, whom I briefly mentioned in my book The Truth about Writing.

In 1997 there were press reports that Hodder & Stoughton had paid £500,000 for the UK rights to a novel entitled Necessary Madness, by 17-year-old Jenn Crowell. American rights were bought separately. If the name and the title do not ring any bells, that's because the book didn't sell well. It did not even appear in the top 100 paperbacks for the following year.

Well, that's the silly kind of thing that happened in those days. An agent would get herself all excited, either genuinely or for sales purposes, and would ring her favourite editor in a breathless state, make the big pitch, talk it all up, young author, photogenic, TV shows, bullshit, blah blah blah.

And then later, after the book had failed to impress or to sell, they would all try to forget it had ever happened. Leaving the young author, of whom so much had been expected, and whose friends and family had been led to expect a massive success, film version, fame, fortune, glitter, Oscars, prizes, life of glamour.... Leaving her where? High and dry, I suspect. Deeply disappointed, at best. Suicidal, at worst. Writers do tend to take such failures rather seriously, especially if they're young and lack perspective. Most experienced writers, myself included, have had such setbacks, though seldom, regrettably, on the £500,000 scale.

Jenn Crowell produced one other novel, and has made a success of her life in other directions. And congratulations to her. But it isn't quite the career that we were led to expect by the hype, is it?

We can find numerous other examples of the superhyped young authors, from Francoise Sagan in the 1950s to the babes in arms of recent years. And all of them lead me to the conclusion that too much too soon is a dreadful fate. And that is why I sighed, just a little bit, about the news of a 'six-figure sum' being handed over to Abigail Gibbs.

However... God is merciful and it seems that this case is different. In this instance it is not a matter of temporarily deranged drinking buddies, agent and editor, getting together and making entirely false sales forecasts on the basis of no evidence whatever other than pure hunch and a misplaced faith in their own infallible ability to spot a winner.

No. In this case the writer comes with a small army of fans behind her.

Abigail, it seems,  'is a phenomenon online, publishing The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire serially on writing website Wattpad since she was 15-years-old. To date, it has been read over seventeen million times. She has a global following, with readers all over the world who have become fans of her characters as well as of their creator. There is already an enthusiastic online subculture of devotees to Violet, Kaspar and Fabian.'

So this time it may not all end in tears.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Alan Furst: Mission to Paris

I think I've read everything that Alan Furst has published. If I haven't, it's an unconscious omission. And I wrote about him at some length in 2005.

So, what of his latest, Mission to Paris? Well, once again, it may be just me, but I thought this one was disappointing. It is a feature of Furst's work that it is (for me) patchy. All you can do is suck it and see.

As in all his work, the pre-war period and the European setting are immaculately researched; and the period details, even if invented, are entirely convincing. The portraits of the Nazis are accurate and, I'm afraid, all too realistic in revealing (as I mentioned in 2005) what an appalling and terrifying bunch of shits they all were.

And therein, for me, lay the rub. My age is such that I have some personal memories of the second world war. So for me, it's not just an interesting period of history, like, say, Tudor times. It's a time when people I was just old enough to know personally went off to war and didn't come back. (You might, perhaps, care to look at my review of an autobiographical book, To War with Whitaker, where I discuss this personal history in the antepenultimate paragraph.)

So, I didn't take to Mission to Paris. In particular, I find that it prompted me to start thinking about all the present (largely financial) difficulties in the Eurozone. It seemed to me that there are worrying parallels between the Europe of 1938 and the Europe of today. Massive problems,and everyone just hoping that, with a bit of luck, they will all go away. Let's hope they do, otherwise the financial system of Europe (not to mention the world) will probably collapse.

So, for me, reading Mission to Europe was an unnerving and unsettling experience. And, frankly, I don't read novels to be unnerved and unsettled.

After writing the above, and only after it, I went to the novel's Amazon.com page, and found it instructive to read the one-star reviews. These contain, I fear, a large measure of truth; though the reviewers are, I think, unnecessarily brutal. I would give it two or three stars. But I also think it is worth noting that nearly all of the one-star reviews clearly come from educated and literate readers who had hoped for so much better.

As for the price business, which I discussed the other day, I can only say that I am very glad I didn't pay £9.99 for the Kindle version.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The multiple causes of mouth-frothing

Every so often -- well, about twice a day, actually -- I come across something about traditional/legacy/print/big 6 publishing which rouses me to a blood-pressure-raising fury during which I may well attack the furniture and, on occasion, start biting the carpet. Yesterday, for example, the news that three harmless ladies were kindly offering to consider unagented manausrcritps for a whole two weeks was enough to do it. And I did suggest, afterwards, that perhaps I might have got out of bed the wrong side. No such thing, actually. This was just another instance of the mouth-frothing stimuli to which I am daily subjected.

Here's another one. Passive Guy, who is American and a contract lawyer by profession, offers the following:

Passive Guy has often been struck by the similarities between the way publishers and agents regard authors and the way former slave-owners regarded former slaves following the American Civil War and for many decades thereafter.

In a million different ways, the attitude manifests itself.

Why do slaves and authors get whipped? They brought it on themselves. If they had done what Ole Massah told them to, he wouldn’t have whipped them. Good slaves don’t get whipped.

Enough said, I feel. Further contemplation of these words will entirely spoil my tea. To which I am really looking forward.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

SF and the amazing generosity of publishers

Perhaps it's just me, but I get the feeling that a great many novels these days have a touch of fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and the like (see, for instance, the Rivers of London series). Either that, or they fall outright into one of those categories.

Anyway, news reaches me of a recent science-fiction novel by Geoff Nelder. Titled Aria, it comes with recommendations from such as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who is no mean judge. It has also appealed, I see, to Gladys Hobson, who forever has a place in my heart as the fearless author of a book about a Granny in search of an orgasm.

Meanwhile, Harper Voyager, which is HarperCollins's science fiction and fantasy imprint, has announced that they will lower themselves sufficiently as to agree to consider 'complete and unagented' manuscripts for a period of two whole weeks. Galleycat has the story.

I must say that when I first read this announcement my lip curled and I was inclined to turn my head and spit. But then, gritting my teeth, I tried hard to understand their point of view. And, yes, I suppose it's just arguable that it is not cost effective for a publisher to wade through piles of unsolicited slush. But either do the job properly, for ****'s sake, or don't do it at all. Two weeks? What kind of impression does that give? To me, it says, arrogant, stupid bastards, frankly. Clearly, they don't expect to find anything. But just to show willing, just to show that their heart is in the right place.... Et cetera, et cetera. I don't happen to have a novel to offer them, but if I did I think I would write in and tell them where to shove it.

Perhaps I just got out of bed the wrong side.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Department of Justice and all like that

I don't know if you've been following the story about the Department of Justice beating up the big six publishers (and who, one might reasonably ask, is more deserving of a really good thumping?). I certainly have not followed every spit and cough, because life is too short.

Anyway, it seems that there have been developments, and the Passive Guy has his own take on the report in the New York Times. 

Passive Guy, should you not know, is a lawyer by profession, and, despite the proposal put forward by one of Shakespeare's characters ('the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers'), these guys do have their uses. And they are pretty smart at summing up a situation. In respect of the wonder boys (and, doubtless, girls) at three major New York publishers, PG has this to say:
The big players in an industry can’t get together in an expensive New York restaurant or anywhere else to set prices on their products and plan ways to force all retailers to abide by their pricing. There was nothing subtle or sophisticated about this conspiracy. This was a bush-league play by some immensely clueless executives.
A sentiment with which I heartily agree. Business as usual, then, as far as the publishing industry is concerned.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Enoch Soames is not forgotten

Jessica Crispin, the well known Bookslut, comes up with a lovely story about Max Beerbohm, Enoch Soames, and Mr Teller, from that Penn & Teller outfit. I always knew they were a class act.

Don't miss this.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Sue Grafton and the indies

By about 1990, Sue Grafton was already well known as the author of a series of very successful crime novels, each of which began with a letter of the alphabet. Thus, "A" is for Alibi appeared in 1982, "B" for Burglar in 1985, and so on.

In 1990 I attended a crime-writers conference at which Ms Grafton gave a good humoured and well balanced speech to the usual dinner. And although I never read any of her books I assumed from that point on that she was, by and large, a pretty good egg.

So it was with some surprise that, in the last week or two, I have seen reports that Ms G was sounding off about self-publishers (indies) in the digital age, and generally making out that they were a goddamn nuisance and morally defective to boot.

And now... Seems the lady has listened to those who abused her as a result of her rash comments. She has admitted that, prior to opening her mouth on this subject, she hadn't know what she was talking about (which we already knew), and that she was sorry to have spoken so precipitously (which we knew she would be, in due course).

Richard Curtis has the story and some sensible comments to add.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Gods, madness, and ebook prices

OK, further to my post of 20 August, suggesting that some UK publishers have taken leave of their senses -- judging by their ebook prices -- here is more evidence that the gods intend to destroy the leading print publishers of our day, because they have assuredly driven them nuts first. (A dictum often attributed to Euripides, but apparently wrongly so.)

Over the weekend I noticed a couple of books, reviewed in the Times, which look like the kind of thing I might like to read (and who knows, even review). Both were thrillers.

Now in the ordinary way of things, I might be willing to take a chance on buying both of these, in ebook form, if the price was, say, equal to what I shell out for a small black in my local Costa. That is, £1.95. Or I might go to £2.95 if I was feeling particularly interested.

Book A is apparently priced by its publisher at £15.21, and Amazon will knock it down to £11.96. So the publisher wants, for an ebook, more money than I would expect to pay for a trade paperback. Hell, I have written, published, printed and sold my own trade paperbacks for about £11.

Book B is offered on Amazon for £6.99. Still way too high.

Meanwhile, following my post of 20 August, muttering about the ebook price of the latest Alan Furst, I reserved the hardback at my local library, and yesterday I collected it. Cost to me could be zero, but they ask for a £1 donation, and, after a search for a box to put it in, that's what I paid.

Now, lemmee see... Could it be that someone is doing something wrong here? I am, after all, a person of some goodwill towards fellow writers. But I am not going to sit (or, more probably, lie) here while someone fucks me up the arse. Because I tried it once and I didn't care for it.

On the other hand, if a sensible publisher will put out a book by a class act, a known quantity, then of course I'm going to pay the price of a cup of coffee. But not a lot more.

So take your pick, boys (and girls). You can either price things sensibly and maximise your income, or you can charge £15.21 and go bust. See if I care.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London series

A while back, I somehow became aware of a novel called Rivers of London, by one Ben Aaronovitch. Genre-wise, it's a curious cross between crime and fantasy, and I couldn't help smiling. It's not so many years ago that I pitched a top editor with an idea for a novel which was a cross between two genres, only to be told that it would never work. So much for wisdom and experience, eh? Nowadays I wouldn't have to give a shit what a top man thought, I would just do it myself, but then...

Anyway, I read Rivers of London with great enjoyment. It stretches the old credulity somewhat, in places, but never mind, I thought, give the man a chance, first book in a proposed series, and so on.

That was in early 2011, it seems, and since then Mr A has produced two more: Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground. This man really knows his London, and if you don't, you may find it a little confusing. But all three novels are excellent if you are looking for a crime fiction/fantasy hybrid, with lots of magic, ancient geographical features personified into gods and goddesses, and so forth. Some humour too, which never hurts.

Just in case you get confused: the first book seems to be called Midnight Riot in the US.

No doubt there will be more.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

How to write a short story (that works)

Dean Wesley Smith is as experienced a writer as you are ever likely to come across. In his post of 23 August, he describes how he went about writing and publishing a short story; publishing, that is, both electronically and in a paper edition. Total time involved: 10 hours, spread over a few days.

So it can be done. And his work does sell, regardless of whether you and I like it or whatever.

Note, however, that a number of skills are needed to pull this kind of thing off successfully. First, lots and lots of practice -- in his case, many years and millions of words. This develops facility, speed, and judgement as to what will work and what won't. Second, he did have a little help (a proofer and a good critic for a wife). Third, he has also developed enough graphic skills to do his own covers.

Personally I would be inclined to take a little more time. The total time would be about the same -- 3 hours per 1000 words is my usual average -- but I would put the story aside for a week or two before giving it a final polish. And perhaps allow another gap before the final check for typos. Then publish.

But, most importantly perhaps, I agree with Dean that once the story is finished you should leave it alone and get on with something else. Otherwise you will tinker for ever, to the advantage of neither the reader nor yourself.

At this point I will immodestly inform you that everything I know about the art and science of short-story writing is incorporated into my book How to Write a Short Story that Works. Search for the title in your local kindlestore and ye shall find.

Well, up to a point. I just did that myself, and found that there are in fact two editions of this book, at least on Amazon.co.uk.

What happened, you see, was this. Some years ago, maybe ten, I wrote How to with the intention of publishing it as a trade paperback, via my own company. But I never got around to getting it into print, a procedure which would, in any case, have resulted in just a few copies selling to UK libraries, and very few readers.

It so happens that I am old-fashioned enough to think that, if I go to the trouble of writing something, I want it to be read. By as many people as possible. So instead of going through all the hoops of issuing it as a trade paperback (it is, believe me, a time-consuming process) I stuck it up on Scribd, as a free download. I issued it under a Creative Commons licence (attribution licence 3.0 to be precise), so that it could be freely copied, sent to friends, and so forth. It seems that I may have posted it on other free sites as well, such as oboko.com.

And now, some years later, some enterprising soul has posted my first (oboko) edition of How to as a paid-for edition on Kindle. And any royalties received from sales of that edition will go to him or her.

This is, to say the least, a surprise. I did not think that the Creative Commons licence allowed anyone to do that. But it may be an arguable point. In any case, my discovery is not an unpleasant surprise. It is slightly flattering that anyone should take the trouble. And he or she is not going to get rich.

Anyway, to go back to the Scribd et cetera version. After a few years I noticed that the Scribd freebie had had 27,000 downloads, so I thought, Gee, if 27,000 people think it's worth a look at the free version, maybe a few thousand will pay for it. So I revised the book (and a lot can change in ten years, particularly on the marketing side). And in 2011 I took down the Scribd version put the second edition on sale on Kindle and Smashwords.

Should you be interested, my latest version of How to Write a Short Story that Works looks like this:

Buy anything else and you will get an earlier (out of date in some respects) edition, and the royalty will go to someone other than the author. Also, in coverting it from an oboko.com freebie, our friendly neighbourhood entrepreneur has failed to format the thing properly. It's a bit of a mess.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That DBW list... Heinlein's Rules... Dr Joanne Benford... and stuff

Further to Monday's post, in which I mentioned that DBW had published a new ebook bestseller list; and I also mentioned, in passing, that the methodology of the list was 'not entirely transparent'.

Well, it turns out that the list was constructed using methods which were even less transparent than I thought. The list is reportedly the work of Dan Lubart, who, among other things, is a senior Vice President at Harper Collins. This revelation has made some people suspicious, and I can't blame them. Nate Hoffelder gives an overview.

Not that I care very much about this, or am remotely surprised. Never a day goes by without me finding out something new about how the political, business, financial, and other worldly empires, all lie to us, cheat, steal, manipulate, and otherwise benefit themselves at the expense of ordinary folks who just get on with their lives. We are getting used to it.

Dean Wesley Smith is not going to be terribly surprised either, one feels. In his latest, and very sensible, remarks about agents, he makes reference to Heinlein's Rules. I think I've read these before, but any writers who haven't might usefully read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Versions appear in lots of places, such as here.

Oh yes. And before I forget... I have, in my time, been rather rude about creative-writing courses at universities. In intemperate moments, while not entirely sober, I may, inadvertently, have described those who teach such courses as often talentless and otherwise unemployable. So it's a bit of a relief, really, to come across a story which I can use in my defence. Most UK newspapers have a version of it: here's the Telegraph's.

PS I wonder where Dr Benford got her PhD.

PPS It was from the University of Sunderland. And apparently, according to one academic who has looked at it, it's a crude cut and paste job. So, next question, who were the internal and external examiners?  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Disgruntled writers, happy readers, and value for money

One trend I've noticed, over the last year or more, is for writers with long track records in traditional publishing (often known as legacy publishing, or print publishing) to sound off about the firms they once did business with. Sometimes they speak in the bluntest terms about how they were treated, cheated, let down, and otherwise buggered about.

I offer a couple of recent examples. Joe Konrath, in an afterword to Melinda DuChamp's guest blog, lays down the law in no uncertain terms. Here's a man with goodness knows how many print books to his name who is never, under any circumstances, going to be tempted to go back into slavery.

'I don't need legacy publishing,' he writes, 'and I will never be taken advantage of again. I declare myself independent of the entire archaic, broken, corrupt system.' Which is plain enough for anyone.

One more example. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is another experienced writer who regularly has less than complimentary things to say about contract terms, often quoting examples from her own period of servitude (although she also gives credit where credit is due). Her general conclusion is that traditional publishers have gone crazy.

It seems that, the longer the writers' track record, the more likely they are to favour going indie.

Readers, meanwhile, are busy buying books (or picking up free ones via the Kindle Select system -- see, currently, Topp Family Secrets). Digital Book World has taken to publishing ebook bestseller lists which analyse the data (according to a not entirely transparent methodology) into various price bands. This is interesting, not least because it suggests that the big publishers are still able to sell at least some ebooks at high prices.

Whether they are maximising their income through an intelligent use of pricing is, however, another matter entirely. As far as I am concerned, their pricing policy seems to be more or less crazy (same conclusion as Ms Rusch). For example, a few weeks ago the Sunday Times carried a review of a new book by a favourite of mine, Alan Furst. The ebook price quoted was, I thought, £19.99, but that may have been a misprint or I may have misread it. Either way, when I came to check it on Amazon, it was £9.99, which is quite stupid enough.

£9.99 translates as $15.68 (as of today), which is way above any book on DBW's latest $10 and up bestseller list (apart from bundles of books). At £2 or maybe even £4 this would have been an instant buy for me. But £9.99? You have to be fucking joking. This is a novel -- an entertainment, albeit an unusually intelligent one. It's not a cure for cancer. And pricing an ebook at that level is not a strategy for staying in business.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Topp Family Secrets FREE

If you're interested in a free Kindle ebook, this is just let you know that for the next four days my novel Topp Family Secrets is available as a free download. You can find it on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or, for that matter, on the French and other versions of Amazon. If the book doesn't appeal to you, you might be able to pass on the news to someone who would enjoy it.

The history of this book might interest the handful of you who are writing your own novels.  From about 1982 until the early nineties, I was too busy with the main job to consider writing novels, but I did write a few plays. Then, when I could finally see some time clear to do a novel, I had a think about what to do. I wanted to do (a) a novel that I would enjoy writing, and (b) something commercial. So, working on the general principle that there are more women readers of fiction than men, I decided that I would write a longish family saga, with lots of complications about who gets the money and who marries who.

So far so good. I worked out a long and suitably complicated plot, did a fairly detailed outline, wrote 10,000 words or so, and my then agent shopped it around. Some firms liked it, but the one who liked it most (Macmillan) decided that the proposed book would be too long for the economics to work. Or so they said.

At some point I decided to write the damn thing anyway, since I at least thought it would be fun to do.

What I had forgotten was that I was ten years out of practice at the job. In particular, I had misjudged the length. What I had anticipated would be 120,000 to 150,000 words turned out to be, as it went along, somewhere between two and three times that length.

So I decided, very sensibly, to split it into three volumes. And I finished the first, published it myself in trade paperback (the way to go when it was done), and then moved on.

As is the way of things, parts two and three of the proposed saga never did get started, let alone finished. Given my age and energy levels, they probably never will see the light of day.

Never mind. Topp Family Secrets stands alone. Some of the characters and settings overlap with Daphne before She Died, and I am fond of the whole thing. I feel as if these people are my old friends, and that's why I've Kindled it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

FREE till 17 August

Daphne+COVER+2nd+attempt+FLAT+AS+JPEG.jpgIt was not until I got the email from Sophie Schiller (see post below) that I realised that a blogger/writer who was any good at marketing would already have remembered to tell people that his latest novel (Kindle version) is available free until 17 August.

Well, better late than never.

Hurry, hurry, hurry, get your copy while stocks last. Or whatever you're supposed to say in these circumstances. Daphne before She Died can now be downloaded free, on amazon, until the end of the week.

David Frauenfelder has written an interesting review on the US Amazon site, and Gladys Hobson ditto on Amazon. co.uk. Both of these reviewers told me things about myself and the book that I didn't know. Extraordinary.

I see that in the first 24 hours of this offer, 293 people have already downloaded the freebie. Which is encouraging. But how they have got to hear of it is a mystery. The web sites which specialise in telling people about free ebooks mostly concentrate on books with about ten 5-star reviews, which I haven't got (yet). And if I try to find Daphne on any list of free books on Amazon itself I can't trace it.

So, not for the first time, I am left reflecting that Amazon works in mysterious ways.

PS David Frauenfelder has his own take on the world over at Breakfast with Pandora. And Gladys Hobson is an excellent writer in her own right. Take a look, for example, at her novel about a granny in search of an orgasm. Obviously one of her favourites (as Daphne is with me), she has recently reworked it.

PPS Half an hour later. OK, done a bit more prowling around Amazon, and I find that, on Amazon.co.uk, there is a page with a list of 'Bestsellers in Family Saga Fiction.' Alongside the list of the top 100 paid books there is a list of the top 100 free books. And Daphne is currently at number 2. Which is even more encouraging.

The theory behind all this, in case you're wondering, is that giving the book away free for a week will get it read by a few people. Not everyone who downloads the freebie will read it, and, of those who do, not all will like it; but of the remainder, the enthusiastic readers, some may tell their friends, some will post a review, twitter, blog, like it on Facebook, and all that stuff that life is too short for me to do for myself. And thus, it is reasoned, both in the minds of Amazon executives and in the fevered brains of rabidly ambitious and hopelessly unrealistic authors, thus are bestsellers made.


Transfer Day by Sophie Schiller

Well, here's another trusting soul who thinks that a mention on this blog will boost her sales and reputation. Ah, if only. I'm not even good at marketing my own stuff (see next post).

Sophie Schiller has written to me about her new novel, Transfer Day. Set in World War I, its locale is an unusual part of the world which in those days was known as the Danish West Indies. In 1917 it was transferred to the US.

Sophie has done loads and loads of research on this period and location and has embedded all that in a good old-fashioned spy thriller with some larger-than-life characters. And why not. Done the same thing myself in the past, about slightly different times and places (and the Kindle edition will be out soon, folks, watch this space.)

Go take a look on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012


I can't quite work it out. Either people send out thousands of emails, to every conceivable book-related web site and blog, or else they have touching faith that, somehow, a mention on this particular blog will bring them thousands of hits on their site. Misplaced faith, if you ask me, but if someone writes to me and asks for a mention I usually oblige.

So, I am here to tell you, at their request, that Pubslush.com 'has relaunched and is currently accepting new writing submissions.' The organisers of Pubslush think that it could be 'a great tool for authors.'

Well, if you're an author, take a look. Apart from anything else, there's a link to good causes and 'fighting illiteracy'.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Boldness be My Friend

It's funny how some books survive while some disappear after six months. This afternoon, for instance, I was walking past a charity shop when I saw in the window a copy of a book that I read nearly sixty years ago. And yet there it was, in a modern paperback edition.

When I got home I looked it up on Amazon. The title is Boldness be My Friend, and it's by Richard Pape. First published by Elek Books in 1953, apparently, and now available in a 2008 edition from Headline Review. The printer is Antony Rowe, which means that they've done it as a POD edition, and very wise too. I notice that the original copyright notice was in the name of Helen Pape, so perhaps his wife wrote the book on behalf of the nominal author.

Boldness be My Friend was one of the many wartime memoirs of ex-servicemen which were published within about ten years after the end of hostilities in 1945. The most famous of these memoirs was, perhaps, The Wooden Horse, by Eric Williams. First published in February 1948, it was reprinted nine times in the next four months. A huge seller; and it was soon filmed (1950), the film too being a big success. Collins were the original publisher, and Leo Cooper (Jilly's husband) revived it in 2005.

Both these books were about prisoners of war, held by the Germans, who somehow or other managed to escape from their prison camps and made their way back to England. Or tried to. That was their appeal. Captured these men might have been, but they never gave up fighting. That sort of thing. And the appeal, it seems, still lingers. Courage in the face of adversity. Don't underestimate it.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Mark Coker on The Future of Publishing

Mark Coker, as many of you will know, is the founder of Smashwords, the ebook distributor. Turns out that he was recently invited to give a couple of presentations to the 2012 conference of the Romance Writers of America.

On his blog, Mark has some profoundly interesting and useful things to say about romantic fiction. More to the point, he has made available all the slides that he used in his talk entitled 'The Future of Publishing'.

Even if you have been avidly following all the changes in technology and publishing practice over the last few years, I strongly advise you to take a look at this. It doesn't take long to go through it and you will learn a great deal. Much of it is based not on speculation and opinion but on actual sales data from the Smashwords experience. Marvellous stuff.

Mr Coker is not above criticism (in particular his choice of Word as the source file for his operation has been questioned), but generally speaking he is light years ahead of those in mainstream publishing.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Windows (the real kind)

This has got nothing to do with books, but if you're interested in windows here's as impressive a collection as I've seen in a long time. It just seems to go on and on and on.

Oh, and there's one of my pics in there somewhere, which is how I found out about it.

More of mine on Flickr. Haven't done anything in that line recently. Fifteen months ago I bought a big iMac specially for photography and, naturally, have done nothing since.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey? We have been here before...

Here in the UK, sales of Fifty Shades of Grey have begun to tail off. A bit. Two weeks ago, Grey sold 1.4 million. In a week. But last week purchases of the so-called mommy-porn (or mummy-porn) novel were down. Even so, the book still managed to sell 534,000 copies. Next biggest seller was Kathy Reichs, whose Flesh and Bones sold 23,871. (Figures from The Bookseller, as reported by the BBC.)

Well now, let's have a little think about this.

What we have here, apparently, is a novel which features a highly submissive woman and a dominant man. (I say apparently because you'd never know much about it from the Kindle sales page on Amazon.co.uk. The publisher provides absolutely zero info about the content.) However, going by vague bits and pieces that I've picked up over the past few months, the plot is, basically, that our heroine is into being tied up and beaten and stuff. So it's a kinky, pervy, ooh-missis kind of story (think what Frankie Howerd would have made of it); and it's all stretched out over three volumes.

Well, the best of luck to all who sail in her. I don't begrudge anybody connected with Grey a single penny of their profits. And if I sound a little snobby about the E.L. James trilogy, believe me it's not because I am anti-porn. Far from it. I have, in my time, researched widely in the field of Victorian erotica, and I have fond memories of such classics as Lady Bumticklers Revels. Furthermore, I would buy Ms James's three books instantly if I thought they would put lead in my elderly pencil. But it doesn't seem likely that they would. On Amazon.co.uk, the first book in the series has 2593 reviews, and 835 of them give it one star. With such encouraging headings as 'Absolute, unashamed, utter drivel'.

What I really want to draw your attention to, because many of today's readers are far too young to remember, is that we have witnessed (some of us) this kind of event before. And, I would venture, we've seen it done rather better.

In the early 1950s there was a French woman who was having an affair with a married man, Jean Paulhan. M. Paulhan's mistress was christened, it seems, Anne Desclos, but in her early thirties she became known as Dominique Aury. As Aury herself acknowledged about the affair with Paulhan, she was no longer young (47) and she was not pretty, so she had to find some other means of binding him to her. The solution was found when her lover expressed an admiration for the work of the Marquis de Sade, and said that no woman could possibly write like that. So Dominique Aury wrote a novel which would test the truth of that proposition.

In three months she had completed an explicit erotic novel which she called Histoire d'O (Story of O in English). It is an account of how a beautiful Parisian woman is subjected to brutal humiliation by being whipped, chained, branded, pierced, and penetrated violently in all the obvious orifices. She is asked for, and readily gives, her consent to these activities.

Dominique Aury's lover was sufficiently intrigued by this novel to arrange for it to be published in 1954. The author chose the pen-name Pauline Reage, and worked hard to maintain her anonymity.

From the beginning, the novel attracted much attention. Various attempts were made to ban it; it won the Prix des Deux Magots; Susan Sontag (inevitably) had things to say about it, and so on and so forth. Over the years it was translated into more than twenty languages, became a bestseller in several countries, and sold millions of copies.

In real life, Dominique Aury was a respected figure on the French literary scene, and her authorship of the notorious Histoire d'O was known only to a few. She was a member of the Legion d'Honneur, i.e. highly respectable. Her anonymity was maintained largely by the fact that all sorts of respectable Frenchmen and women were quite happy to have it 'known' that actually they had written her novel themselves.

When Paulhan lay dying, aged 83, Dominique Aury/Pauline Reage/Anne Desclos slept in his room for the last three months.

And fifty years after its first publication, the French government announced that Histoire d'O would be included on a list of 'national triumphs' to be celebrated that year.

I once had a copy of Story of O, and tried diligently to read it. But failed.

If you want to know more about this extraordinary author, start with Wikipedia. And there's a good chapter in Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru (2011, HarperCollins).

PS. Tim Worstall reminds me that Tom Sharpe wrote a satirical novel about publishing, The Great Pursuit, in which a dodgy firm of literary agents hires a young man to pretend to be the author of a rather racy novel. Well, I say satirical. All too easy to believe, actually. And of course it happens all the time with celebrity authors.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Bruce Holland Rogers rides again

Bruce Holland Rogers is a short-story writer with formidable talent, and I have written about him on this blog before: principally here and here.

He is now using Kickstarter to try to raise $3000 for a trade paperback version of his latest collection. Seems like a good idea to me. Here's the Kickstarter page.

If you want to read a story that I, at least, found very powerful, try The Dead Boy at Your Window. And there are links to several other freebies on Bruce's own web site.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

There's a moral here somewhere...

I'm sitting here, still in jimjams at noon, about one week into a nasty chest infection, and without the energy to do much -- not even look at naughty pictures on the internet, so that shows how bad it is. Anyway, couldn't let this one pass.

This morning I got a notification from Blogger about a comment on an old post, so I went to the post and deleted the comment. But while I was there I noticed that the post mentioned a new man, recently appointed as the boss of Borders bookshops chain in the US.

At that time Borders was in poor shape, shares at a three-year low. But fear not. The boy genius, one George Jones by name, had ideas. Oh yes. But the thing that struck me was that none of the ideas involved an ambition to be a better bookseller. And there was no mention of writers. (Hey, come on now. Be reasonable.)

At which point I scratched my befuddled head and said to myself, how did that massive company (worldwide in 2006: 1200 stores, 35,000 employees) get on in the next six years? Don't I remember that it sort of... collapsed?

Well, yes, turned out I did. By 2011 the company went bankrupt (in effect), couldn't find anyone to buy it, fell over, coughed, and went to a better place. Wikipedia:
 As of October 14, 2011, the Borders.com website has been replaced by a redirection link to the Barnes & Noble website, effectively shutting down Borders.com entirely.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Daphne before She Died

I gave notice a while back that I was going to publish a new Kindle book. Well, now it's out. The title is Daphne before She Died, and if you care to take a look at the details, you can find it, as appropriate, on either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

If you care to compare the two book pages, on .com and .co.uk, you will find that they're different. Why? Go figure. I will shortly write to Amazon and ask, but I am not hopeful of a reply.

Obviously, you're not likely to do such a weird thing as compare two pages for ordering the same book, unless you are, like me, a person wrestling with the task of trying to make your book visible and to boost sales (or indeed, create any sales at all, in the first place). But the .com page allows the author to enter far more detail about reviews, and about the author, than does .co.uk. Perhaps the explanation is that server space on .co.uk is in shorter supply? Odd.

During the past couple of months I have been spending a considerable amount of time studying internet book-marketing techniques. My conclusion, after more reading than I've enjoyed, is that the conventional wisdom is roughly as follows:

Write a really good book; design a terrific cover, and see if you can find someone famous to give you a quote for it; issue press releases; write to a vast number of people and ask them to review your book; start a blog, and post daily; get a Facebook page for yourself and one for the book; start twittering; get yourself interviewed on other blogs; interact with all those readers who review, comment or contact you for any reason; talk to them; find out what they like and don’t like; show them drafts of your next book; assemble a database of all the people you’ve contacted, and keep in touch with them for future books; send them a regular newsletter. Make friends with your readers! It’s all about interaction!

Well, yes. Maybe. But my conclusion, after absorbing a couple of months of this kind of thing, was that, if this is what it takes to be a great success as a writer in the digital age, then I am going to have to settle for being a modest success, or even no success at all. There is simply no way, at age 73, that I am going to take on that kind of workload. I would never have time to do any writing.
Fortunately, within the last week or two, I have stumbled across a different approach. It's embodied in a new book by Michael Alvear: Make a Killing On Kindle. Alvear's subtitle (inside the book) is: Without Blogging, Facebook and Twitter.

Notice that word without. Now this really looks promising. I will let you know how I get on.

Oh, and by the way: if you'd like a free review copy of Daphne, please send me an email. Address in the Blogger profile. This offer holds good till the end of July, but by then the book should be anyway offered free (under Kindle Select procedures) for a period of about three days.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ross MacDonald

I see that Penguin UK are soon to publish another in their series of books by Ross MacDonald. These are part of the Penguin Modern Classics series, and they deserve the title.

I think I read the whole of the RM oeuvre, about forty years ago, and they were all pretty good stuff. Rather dark, featuring families with strange and twisted histories, and rather Freudian. In terms of genre, they are crime fiction/private eye, and older readers may remember Paul Newman playing the famous Lew Archer in the movie version of The Drowning Pool.

RM has been described by Elmore Leonard as 'America's greatest crime writer', and while the point is arguable it's not far wrong.

His wife was Margaret Millar, absolutely no slouch at writing herself, though I haven't seen any mention of her for a long time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Doomed, I tell you, doomed...

If memory serves (and it is getting increasingly dodgy), it was that Scottish undertaker in Dad's Army who used to claim, at frequent intervals, that we are all doomed. But actually he was about fifty years ahead of time.

Take, for instance, one of today's headlines. It is reported that the G20 'wishes to express its alarm about the eurozone crisis.'

Well, aren't we lucky. We have political leaders who are so perceptive and supernaturally well informed that they think we should know there is a bit of a problem.

Problem? Is that what you call it? Listen, I just sit here and read the occasional blog, and look at a few newspapers in my local Costa, and I am here to tell you that for the past year I have been quietly wetting myself with panic. It seems that it wasn't enough for the banks to fuck things up big-time in 2008. No, they are filled, it seems, with an overwhelming desire to do it all over again!  While stealing money from you and me in the process.

I can't be arsed to look up the precise figures, because it's all too depressing, but the RBS, which owns the NatWest, with whom all my pathetic little pile of money is stored, seems to have lost 1 billion pounds sterling in the first quarter of this year. Well done boys! A billion in one quarter! Think how much you could lose if you really tried.

I tell you, if in a year from now I still have enough pennies left to buy a cup of coffee which allows me to read newspapers for free, I shall be pleasantly surprised.

Meanwhile.... There is a silver lining to this cloud. Because the book business is booming, right?

Um, well... Sort of.

The Sun tells us that Fifty Shades of Grey, 'about a depraved relationship between a young virgin and her rich older lover', is now the fastest-selling paperback since records began. And it's 'sexually explicit', says The Sun, drooling so much that it makes the newsprint all soggy.

Well, there you are then. If sales of that order can't put lead in the economy's pencil I don't know what will. Salvation comes (heh, heh) in the form of Mommy porn.

Or not, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, if you want to know what happened in 2008, you really have to read Michael Lewis's The Big Short, which is highly entertaining if you have a taste for black humour. If you haven't, it will probably give you a stroke.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Daphne before She Died

Coming soon to an Amazon web site near you: Daphne before She Died, a new novel by Michael Allen.

Well, actually it's newish. I wrote this book about twelve years ago, and published it as a trade paperback. In those days it had a different title, and I used a female pen-name. It sold about as well as you would expect, i.e. about 100 copies, mostly to libraries, and it washed its face financially. I took it out of print a while back because it had stopped selling. Since then I have revised it somewhat, and given it a new title and a new cover. I am using my own name this time.

Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say about this book, first time around:
This account of two reckless love affairs in the early 1960s is primarily concerned with the emotional fallout of these obsessive relationships and their effect on the people involved in them. Robert Duval, son of a French father and English mother, has been approached by Daphne, his old housemaster's wife. She is dying and wants a record of the momentous year when she became passionately involved with one of the boys in her husband's House.

But hers was not the only torrid affair that year - Robert himself was initiated into the delights of the flesh by a nubile 18-year-old French girl, and Daphne's request stirs up memories of his own youthful infatuation.
Public schools [i.e. boys boarding schools in England] operated according to their own codes of morality - a little discreet homosexuality was acceptable, but striking up a physical relationship with a woman was considered unacceptable. Yet the couples seemed fearless in the pursuit of their desires, almost as if the strength of their feelings rendered them immune to discovery.
 The novel dissects issues of secrecy and truth in sexual relationships. Both Daphne's husband, Ben, and Robert's mother knew about the affairs, yet they kept that knowledge to themselves. Ben knew that Daphne's loyalties would always lie with him, and that the end of the school year would mark the end of the affair. Robert's mother knew that once Suzanne returned to France the passion would burn itself out. Yet years later, even though both affairs are long over, the memories of that obsession are as strong as ever for both Robert and Daphne.
This is a fascinating account of the consuming power of  sexual passion, and a remarkable insight into the claustrophobic world of traditional public-school life.
That's a pretty good review really, isn't it? Perhaps I'm justified in seeing it as one of my better efforts.

Anyway, the new improved version of this novel is coming out again within a week or two. In the meantime, if it sounds like the sort of thing that you might enjoy reading, after which you are encouraged to write a review on Amazon, please drop me a line -- address in profile -- and I will get you a free copy for your Kindle. This offer holds good for the first ten applicants or till the end of July, whichever comes first.

Adam Curtis -- the Medium and the Message

Even today, the majority of books published are non-fiction. And anyone who reads non-fiction is looking for information.

If you want information about the current political situation in many parts of the world, you need to keep an eye on the blog of Adam Curtis. The following description of what he's up to is lifted straight from the blog:

Adam Curtis is a documentary film maker, whose work includes The Power of NightmaresThe Century of the SelfThe Mayfair SetPandora's BoxThe Trap, and The Living Dead.
Adam writes: "This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives."
Today Mr Curtis has a detailed account of a strange character who was to be found lurking in the shadows of many military operations in Afghanistan. But along the way we learn a great deal about the thinking of the American military and politicians. Yes, you may, in your black cynicism and deep depression, wonder whether anyone ever does any thinking in those quarters, but it is going on.

Whether you like the results of such thinking is another matter entirely.

If you've ever seen a documentary by Adam Curtis, you will know that he relates them himself. And when you read his prose you can hear his voice. Uncanny.

The BBC gets a lot of stick these days, but an organisation that provides a base for a man like this is definitely doing something right.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Comma Press for short stories

The Comma Press, in the UK, is very active in the field of short stories. It's a not-for-profit organisation, which is just as well, I suspect, because it's mighty hard to get anyone interested in buying short stories -- at least via the traditional routes. Digital may change everything. Anyway, nip over to the Comma Press web site and take a look.

It you're interested in writing short stories, as opposed to reading them, you could do worse than read my book How to Write a Short Story that Works. This is available in ebook form, from the usual Amazon retail sources (US readers go to dot com, and Brits go to dot co dot uk). It's also on Smashwords, and therefore on a variety of other outlets, including Apple. This book has so far attracted 27,000 readers, give or take a few, so there must be a lot of people interested in the short-story form. And why not?

While I was checking the link to the Amazon.com location of my book, I came across a couple of very flattering reviews that I hadn't seen before. Amazon doesn't seem to notify an author of reviews (whereas Blogger sends me a copy of every comment). In view of these reviews I think I may have to put the price up, so hurry, hurry, hurry, buy your copy now.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Impac makes an impact?

Much fuss in the UK newspapers today about the Impac Prize -- sorry, it seems to be the International Impac Dublin Literary Award -- which has been won by Jon McGregor. Apparently he has 'beaten the Pulitzer prize-winning American writer Jennifer Egan to win the world's richest literary award for his novel Even the Dogs.'

As you can see, it's a lit'ry thing, this prize, so it is no surprise, perhaps, that I'd never heard of it before today (or had forgotten it). Neither had I heard of young McGregor.

Having read some of the stories about the winner and his novel I can't say that I'm rushing out to buy it, or even reserve it at the library, but that's because I'm a well known philistine, with no interest in kulcha.

However, good luck to the lad. Prizewinner or not, he has chosen a tough life (that of a literary author). I don't envy him that life style at all. Would you swap the life of Martin Amis, say, for your own? Not me, anyway. Sounds bloody miserable.

Dean Wesley Smith, on the other hand....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Well, I'm back

‘Well, I’m back,’ he said. 

You may not remember, but that is the very last line of the third and final part of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. And, ever since I first read it, I have always considered that line unsatisfactory.

The problem is not that the words don’t form a satisfactory ending – they do. The problem is that the order is wrong; at least to my ear.

As soon as I first read the line I said to myself, No, no, that really won’t do. In my opinion the order of the words quite spoilt the effect which the last line of a novel or story is supposed to have.

That word ‘said’ is really so feeble, and anticlimactic. ‘He said,’ indeed. Doesn’t work. Ought to be entirely the other way round. The sentence ought to read: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m back.’  Or possibly even with a full stop in there: ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m back.’ That’s better, I think.

In any event, the important part is to get that final staccato sound of the K at the very end of the sentence; the point being that we need to have a real sense of the fact that this truly is the end – at least of that particular book. Of course it would have been far better to end the book on a letter T, if the author could have managed it. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘That’s the end of that.’ Or something similar. Needs work, but you get the point, I hope.  

All of which, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that the Grumpy Old Bookman is hereby revived. Rip Van GOB is roused from his twenty-year slumber. Or whatever it was. I can’t promise to be as prolific as I once was. But occasionally, from time to time, there will appear here some comment or other on the current book world. Or perhaps even the world in general. And it’s all getting terribly interesting, isn’t it? Such times we live in!

Actually, I tell a lie. I suspect that, in practice, the very occasional posts here will be shameless plugs for my newly published books in digital form. I am writing some brand-new stuff, it’s true; but more often I’m reviving some of my previously published books in digital forms. Because they're really rather good and I'm quite proud of them. Worth reviving, imho.

More later.