Monday, 30 November 2009

Sarah Palin and Other Misguided Efforts

I read the following on the excellent Guardian Books site today:

Rupert Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has called on "literate people" to boycott books until publishers stop bringing out ghostwritten memoirs by the likes of Sarah Palin.' [See the rest of the article here.]

Whilst my liberal blood-pressure shoots up at the mere mention of two of the names mentioned, I think I'm going to have to take issue with the owner of the third. Boycott books? How's that going to help?

Leaving aside the fact that Mr Wolff's argument, as presented in this article, is rather confusing (is he suggesting that we boycott all books or simply all ghostwritten ones which remain misleadingly attributed) I don't actually agree with his central argument which appears to be:

People are reading these books under false pretences because they're not actually written by the people they pretend to written by.

Why don't I agree? Well, firstly, I'm not sure that most of the people who buy these books actually give a monkey's who writes them – I think they're just fascinated by the characters involved. Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her politics, is a larger than life character who never fails to elicit a reaction of one kind or another. People want to read about her either in an uncritical, adulatory fashion if her politics and image appeal or in a species of guiltily horrified wonder if she appears to be as entertainingly mad as a spoon. Granted, it would be more honest if the cover read 'ideas conveyed by Sarah Palin in conversation with A. Ghostwriter who then put them into a coherent and readable form' but I don't honestly think it would affect the likelihood of people wanting to read it.

Secondly, I wonder how many people actually believe that these books are written by the people whose photographs appear on the front cover? Maybe I'm crediting the celebrity-autobiog-reading public with too much insight but I would have thought most people realise that if you're famous for – as an example – playing football superlatively well or revealing your rather magnificent chest in newspapers, then you are unlikely also to be blessed with the necessary talent to write about your experiences in a cogent and literate manner.

But, whether we accept Mr Wolff's central argument about false pretences or not, do we agree that registering our displeasure by leaving off buying books would be a good idea?

I can only speak for me, so here's my answer. No. It's a stupid idea. Sleb-memoirs are, notoriously, Christmas- and gift-book fodder bought by people who buy few other books. But they buy these particular books in their hundreds of thousands for the reasons outlined above vis-a-vis La Palin. If people who generally fight shy of literary sleb-fests in favour of the Booker/Costa prize list (which is the group I understand Mr Wolff to be referring to when says 'literate people') stop buying Booker/Costa type books, the only books to suffer will be the latter which, generally, already fail to sell in their hundreds of thousands (unless they win said prize, obviously.) It would be a far better idea to buy more of these books, not fewer, as it might just make the difference next time an unusual but 'literate' book strays over a publisher's horizon.

Mr Wolff clearly thinks that, on many levels, these books are bad. Fair enough. If you think a book is bad, don't buy that book. But don't stop buying books en bloc as some kind of misguided protest.

That's my view, what do the rest of you think?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Guest Blogger - Neil Ayres

This week, it came to my attention that the lovely Neil Ayres of the veggiebox blog has published The New Goodbye - a collection of short stories - as an e-book through Smashwords.

(That's Neil, in the photo.)

The Smashwords site describes The New Goodbye like this:

In this collection of realist short stories, Neil George Ayres details the often overlooked depth of modern relationships. From the self-contained love story of a modern marriage, through to the microcosm of the patrons of a working class public house, all life is here. If you love Raymond Carver or Jon McGregor, you're in safe hands.

I know Neil is proud of the stories in this collection so I invited him to Hawkins Bizarre to say a bit about e-publishing in general and the collection in particular. So, over to him.

Alis has been kind enough to invite me on here to pimp my new short story collection and talk a bit about ebooks, so here I go.

As someone well aware of how expensive it is to print and distribute a book (I’d worked in print and print production for over seven years before moving over to the web), and how little of the overall price goes to the publisher (even less filters through to the author), I fail to understand why mainstream publishers are being so hesitant in embracing the ebook. The majority in the UK—imprints like Harper Collins’ The Friday Project are exceptions—are insisting on listing their ebooks at similar prices to the paper equivalent. The intention may be an effort to stall a drop in print sales, but the effect is more that they’re leaving customers who could potentially save them a good deal of money out of pocket. If this behaviour continues, then long-term traditional publishers are in danger of losing these customers to new publishing models, such as Cursor, the one being developed by Richard Nash, or to Mark Coker’s Smashwords, which I’m using myself and which has struck distribution deals with both Sony and Barnes & Noble, with more in the pipeline.

The book publishers are letting booksellers - who already have a stranglehold over them on the high street - lead the way in the ebook market. Most publishers seem content to let Sony fight their corner for them, and offer little support, against the online retailers like Amazon and Waterstones.

What’s the alternative? The production costs for an ebook are an infinitesimal fraction of those for print, and can probably be soaked up by retraining production staff and ejecting some of the expensive processing software they use for their jobs. Rather than plowing the money saved into an even greater share for the distritbutors, publishers should now be taking the fight to them. A single house selling its own books is never going to be able to take on the might of a giant like Amazon, but a collaboration between the major houses, perhaps partnering with a technology provider like Sony, which has already shown its support for publishers over retailers, may be able to. What book publishing needs is an effective body promoting co-operation between houses and representing the interests of the entire book industry, including the readers.

To me, the model for the future of publishing is simple: retain the hardback for readers who still aren’t ready to surrender the feel and smell of a paper product between their fingers. If anything the publishers will make more money on hardback sales than they do now (as hardbacks are a bigger money-spinner per unit sold than a paperback), and ditch the paperbacks altogether in favour of ereaders.

But for now, the people that will invest in e-readers, or receive them this Christmas - which I feel will be the time that the UK market really wakes up to how important they will be - will be genuine read-a-holics, people passionate about the books they read and also ones who talk about books, recommend them to friends and play an important part in the word-of-mouth success garnered by bestsellers. Surely these are the people publishers should be courting?

Personally I love books. I own probably a couple of hundred, yet most, once read, end up in my loft, given to friends or donated to charity shops. I have a bookcase with maybe twenty or thirty of my favourite books on it, and that’s it. Anything else I could be re-educated to use an ereader to digest.

If you’re one of these lucky types, to already be using an e-reader and looking for something new to get your teeth into, you can download my short story collection, The New Goodbye, for free. It’s available for both the Kindle and Sony Readers, as well as the Stanza app on the iPhone and most other formats, as well as HTML for your computer screen.

I’m likely to release a revised version of my first novel through Smashwords at some point too. So keep an eye on the Veggiebox if you’re interested in that.

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Alis for having me.

Thanks, Neil, and the very best of luck to The New Goodbye.

PS - I've just finished re-reading The Leaving Present, one of the stories I know Neil is most proud of in the collection and found it both accomplished and touching. I recommend it!View and download the whole collection here - you don't need any kind of e-reader, you can read it from your laptop or PC.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The kind of books I read

I read all kinds of different books from young adult to crime, from thrillers to historical fiction and literary novels but there is one kind of book I'm not keen on – translations. War and Peace? Never read it. (Could have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge fan of the 19th century novel, of course). Love in the Time of Cholera? Nope. The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Afraid not.

More recently, there have been bestsellers like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. People raved about these books but I couldn't get past page 100. Am I a horrible xenophobe? I hope not. It's just that these books never sound quite right to me. (I do mean 'sound' – when I read I hear the words as if somebody were reading the book to me.) There are always sentences that make me frown and think 'that's not real English, not really real English'. Every time it happens, I'm pulled out of the fictional world, my connection with the author is interrupted.

There are exceptions. I made it all the way through Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (author: Peter Hoeg, translator: Felicity David). And whoever translates Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (the translator doesn't get a mention on Amazon or the Waterstone's site) is clearly a genius. Halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I had to check that I was actually reading a translation.

But generally... I think it would be fair to say I don't do translations.

I have a Croatian friend who is determined to cure what she sees as my dreadful literary parochialism and who keeps lending me books in trnslation. And, finally, she has struck gold. Or perhaps I mean I have. Last weekend she brought me Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, translated by Thomas Teal. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

The True Deceiver is almost a fable. Though it's clearly set in the twentieth century – there is a motor vehicle (just the one) and there are merchandising deals for the children's author who is one of the main protagonists – there's a timeless feel to the book. The whole book takes place during the course of one winter but there's a dreamlike quality to the passage of time and the characters almost seem to be suspended in the snowy season as events shake the snow-scene around them.

The book is full of beautiful, spare, luminous prose. Characters are strongly drawn but never charicatures. With enormous economy Tove Jansson shows us how people's inner life and outer worlds collide as conflicting needs come to the fore; the need to retain independence but to feel secure; the need to make money out of somebody whilst at the same time securing that person's financial interests. People don't talk much in this book, speaking to each other is something the characters do only in extremis – communication takes place through actions not words; and the actions speak very loudly.

Will The True Deceiver convert me to reading more books in translation? Probably not, to be honest. But I shall definitely be reading more Tove Jansson – particularly if I can get hold of translations by Thomas Teal.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A further notch on historical fiction

Reaction to my last post seems to indicate that, for readers of historical fiction, authenticity of both voice and detail is as important as plot; a view which I heartily agree with.

So, can I move the debate on a notch?

If the authentic historical details box is ticked and the decent plot box is ticked, how important is it that the people in the novel are as representative of their era as the novelist can make them?

In other words, how important is it to the reader of historical fiction that the characters they are reading about are not simply twenty-first century people transplanted into a well-drawn historical setting?

When I started reading historical fiction in my teens, I think I automatically accepted that historical characters would think and feel like me – I mean, how else was I going to identify with them?

It wasn't until I started doing the research for Testament that I began to understand how very differently the people of the medieval period thought and felt about the world they lived in. This realisation didn't stop me enjoying hist fic which failed to acknowledge this – I remain a huge fan of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books, for instance - but, in general, my criteria for judging historical novels became far more exacting.

Historical fiction with a crime/murder theme is suddenly big in publishing terms – it's a genre on the up – and I read a fair amount of it but, I have to confess, a lot of it doesn't ring true because the way the protagonists think – particularly those who are investigating the crimes – doesn't stack up in terms of authentic world view.

So, what does everybody else think? Does coming across recognisably modern people with twenty-first century views about justice, social politics or religion put you off certain kinds of fiction, or will a good plot and external period detail get you through? Are there excellent examples you've come across (I was recently massively impressed by Shona MacLean's The Redemption of Alexander Seaton and here's somebody who agrees with me) or real howlers (I'll let you fill those in)?