Death of the book trade: more anecdotes released

Throw a paperback at a room full of writers, and chances are that it’ll hit someone with a grievance. Writing is a lonely trade, and success – the genuine life-changing success which follows a major literary hit – is astonishingly rare, not least because so very many books are published these days. There were more than 170,000 new titles in 2012, up almost 20,000 in three years. How many of these were hits? And what’s a hit anyway?

I’ve never encountered an industry as subjective as book publishing; we who work in it, and particularly we who write books, are dangerously prone to the fallacy that because we have observed something, it must be both true and a signifier of something wider. Because isn’t that what we try to do with our books – speak some larger truth, comment on some aspect of society, make the story resonate beyond the page? But when we write an opinion piece based on those beliefs, things come dangerously unstuck.

To quote the old saw: the plural of anecdote is not data.

Take Robert McCrum in the Observer today: he has written a piece with the provocative title ‘From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life’, which  caused me to fear it was going to be about the suicide of a scribbler. But no, it’s about how certain authors are struggling to make ends meet. Three authors are cited, two others (Paul Bailey and Hanif Kureishi) are yanked out of the cuttings file, and the general tone of the piece can be summed up by this paragraph:

To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.

Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. The years 2007-2010 are pivotal: first, as Thomson has described, came the credit crunch. And it occurred at the very moment that the IT revolution was wrecking the livelihoods of those creative classes – film-makers, musicians and writers of all sorts – who had previously lived on their copyrights.

This is asserted, without any supporting evidence or data. It is just fact. Computers killed books. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. But on this specific point – that technology is killing content because of piracy – McCrum is, at least when it comes to the UK book trade, just wrong. I looked at the numbers, and I wrote about it in the Literary Review. Here’s the piece, and here’s the Ofcom report that highlights the minuscule amount of book piracy in the UK.

Now, we might be hell-bound. But at least let’s be hell-bound with the facts straight. At least let’s point out that more books are being published than ever before, that just as many if not more are being bought (don’t believe me? Check the Publishers’ Association figures – they’ve got charts and everything). Let’s be honest that writing is and always has been a precarious business, that making money from it has always forced writers into queasy compromises with themselves and their art. Glen Duncan wrote a whole host of brilliant and critically-acclaimed books that didn’t sell particularly well. He decided to do something about it, and wrote something that did. What specifically is wrong with that?

I look around me at the writers who had their first books come out around the same time as mine. Some have been successful, others less so. Broadly, they’re being supported by their publishers (thus giving the lie to the old ‘publishers don’t support new talent’ canard). They’re all having to look at their bottom lines, calculate affordability, wonder where the next cheque is coming from. That’s freelance work, friends, and it always has been. So my anecdotes are entirely different to McCrum’s anecdotes. Who is right?

There was another (infinitely less egregious) example of this in the Telegraph, in which Jamie Fewery, a publishing fellow who knows of what he speaks, wrote that there was a crisis in reading amongst young men. It was actually an interesting piece, but it opened with the following thunderous bellow of subjectivity:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that men read fewer novels than women.
Or, at least, that’s my experience, based on over ten years of working in the book industry.

Yes, Fewery’s experience is valid (and it’s a lot more trustworthy than McCrum’s misty reminiscing). And this was, after all, a comment piece, not a piece of data journalism. But Fewery’s central point – that there was once a category of books one could broadly define as commercial fiction for men, or chaplit (my horrific neologism, not Fewery’s) – is surely provable with data. Can’t we show how Tony Parsons’ books are selling?

And as for the assertion that ‘young men are reading fewer novels than they used to’, that, surely, is also demonstrable. It may even be true, though if one were to say that one should also point out that young men are probably reading more than ever, it’s just the format that has changed, from novels to games and social media.

But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that we should not continually play The Last Post over book publishing, particularly those of us who make their living out of it (such as Sunday newspaper literary editors). Being able to write books for even a semi-living is a privilege, not a burden. And finally, our individual stories of failure or non-success should not lead us to state, categorically, that everything is failing. We all of us sit on the precipice of obscurity and disappointment and the great majority of us, sadly, fall in.

 

 

Where does it all come from?

I’m just back from a session at the marvellous Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (disclaimer: my better half is chief executive) to see a truly fantastic talk by David Almond. The audience were primary school teachers (and me), and David gave us an insight into how he writes books that was at once modest and genuinely inspiring.

‘I’m going to give you a word,’ he said. ‘A four-letter word. When I tell you the word, you have to keep it in your head, but it can only be the WORD. The letters of the word. It can’t be anything else. Just that single word. Ready? Here it is. T-E-N-T.’

The point being, of course, that you can’t. Those four letters become so much more than a word – they become sights and smells and pictures and memories and sounds and everything you’ve ever thought or that ever happened to you that involved a tent.

And that was the theme of the talk: how our minds are vehicles for imagination and creativity, two words which, David said, he was scared of as a child, because they seemed to sonorous and difficult. I still remember my granny saying to me the morning after one of my regular nightmares ‘you have them because you’ve a strong imagination,’ so that imagination became a condition, like asthma or myopia, that made your life more difficult.

David Almond is one of those people who’s not afraid to talk about the magical side of writing, the spark of inspiration – catch his anecdote about when and where the first line of Skellig came to him, and I defy you not to shiver. I’m emotionally hardwired to be sceptical about this stuff, to poo-poo those writers who talk about the mystical side of creativity. But I’m wrong. It’s right to talk about that stuff, because sometimes what we do as writers does feel magical, or at least inexplicable. This morning I wrote two chapters, one after the other. One was great, the other so-so. I have no idea why.

But then, as a counter-balance and a mild name-drop, I did get the chance to chat briefly with David before his talk. What did we chat about? Freedom, the software which allows you to turn off the Internet on the machine you’re working on to allow you to write. So yes, even magicians like David Almond need the right environment.

One other Almond anecdote – when he writes, he writes in Page View, with the numbers of the pages and the title of the book at the top of each page, so he can see the book physically coming to life as he goes. I think that’s brilliant.

A fantastic writer and a wonderful fellow. He signed a book for me, too.

Character Equity and Ripper Street

A quick post while the tea brews….

It’s excellent, really excellent, that more episodes of Ripper Street will be made, thanks to the intervention of Amazon. The deal, according to Variety, involves Amazon part-funding new episodes in return for rights to both of the first two series, and first-broadcast rights in the UK, a few months after which the BBC will screen them. No news yet on how many episodes, or when, or the window between Amazon’s screening and the BBC’s. But this is good news – as I wrote here, I thought Ripper Street was a really excellent and lively addition to the BBC schedules, and I was appalled when it was canned.

jerome flynn ripper streetBut let’s be clear about something: Amazon’s been quite clever here. Because it hasn’t just bought a programme brand, an onscreen look-and-feel, a high-class cast and a high-quality writing team. It’s bought a set of characters. Those characters have been etched out, with growing clarity and assurance by actors, writers and directors alike, over two series. They’re now worth actual cash money.

When television drama is done right and done well, this equity investment in characters pays growing dividends (at least, it does until it doesn’t). Which is why it was so bloody scandalous of the BBC to drop the show in the first place. Yes, audiences could have been higher (so why change the broadcast night and schedule it against more popular fare on the other side?). Yes, it must have been an expensive show to make (so why change the…. oh, you get the idea). But the hard work had already been done. Reid and Jackson and Drake and the rest had had come alive. We cared about them. And that, more than anything, is I think why Amazon have come in on this.

ripper_streetBecause characters have value. Characters pull in audiences. Look at Breaking Bad, which I am so nearly at the end of (five episodes to go) that I can barely stop thinking about it enough to write the book I’m supposed to be working on. Those characters were built, knocked down, re-established and refined over five series, until I’m not sure whether Walt is evil or Jesse is good or Skyler is sly, just in the same way I’m not sure about real people. It’s the power of serial television (and, ahem, serial books). And it’s characters that drive it.

So back to my own serial. For which this has been a very, very discreet form of advertising.

Bloody Good Reads: The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris

Look, I’m going to name-drop now. Deal with it.

I bought Joanne Harris’s latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look, Joanne signed my book!). Joanne also gave me some blurb for my second book, and was one of the judges when I won Literary Death Match.

Yes, look at me, I am awesome. I know Joanne Harris, and I’m hugely grateful to her as a new author who’s received her prestigious support.

gospeloflokiSo take what comes next with as much salt as you want, but The Gospel of Loki is magnificent. Take the darkly rich Norse mythology of Odin and Asgard, and transmit it through the amoral, witty and restless voice of Loki, birthed in and birther of chaos. What you get is a series of Tales and Trickery, by the end of which you are at home with some of the weirdest and imaginative beings which ever sprang from human hearts trying to explain what was outside in the Dark.

The book it reminded me of most was Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, not because of any essential similarity in the telling, but because in both a writer with a singular voice and attitude brings alive a world with such energy and assurance that you wonder how these myths were ever told without that voice. It took the endless Northern nights of telling and drinking to give birth to Loki; it took Joanne Harris to rescue the trickster from Marvel Comics and make him speak again. First class stuff.

The Count, Murray and some other guy

Because I’m a sucker for anything featuring the Count.

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Sign of Four (or is it Three?) – YouTube.

Seeing through Theo Decker’s eyes

Imagine that you could live inside another person’s mind for a week or two. See the world through their eyes, experience their sensations, their fears and their ecstasies.

Imagine that the person whose head you were temporarily residing in was a person of exquisite and detailed responses to the world, whose mind combined erudite knowledge with a refined sense of beauty and craft, such that the world’s surfaces were livid and constantly interesting.

Imagine that this mind was also fractured somehow, traumatised, living with the experience of a horror so deep, just because the mind that experienced the horror is so capable of perception.

Imagine that the dreams and nightmares of this person became, over the weeks of living in their head, so much a part of you that some nights you weren’t sure if you were being kept awake by your own cares, or theirs.

Imagine that you could see the point at which this experience would end, that it was manifest in a thinning number of pages in your right hand, and then one night it just…. stopped.

Imagine that.
Fabritius-goldfinch

To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I’ve only seen a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.

Wapping, as found in The Lost Valley of London

Londonist linked to this lovely thing today: the latest in The Lost Valley of London series is all about Wapping. It could even serve as a very good book trailer for my first two books, The English Monster and The Poisoned Island. Pirates, executions, river police, docks, tunnels – it’s all there. Lovely.

The man who loves books but cannot read

A beautiful story in the New York Times, that reads like the opening of  a gorgeous Indian novel:

On the banks of picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, sits the only library in the neighborhood, run by a man who loves books but cannot read.

In a single-story wooden house, carefully maintained shelves are filled with around 600 books in several languages, the prize possessions of Muhammad Latif Oata, a 44-year-old handicrafts seller who dropped out of school at age 10 to work.

Over two decades, Mr. Latif, a Kashmir native, has accumulated all these books through exchanges and donations from people who visited his shop, first in Goa, then in Karnataka and now here in Dal Lake, a popular tourist destination. His collection includes books written by authors from many countries, like the United States, Britain, Sweden, Italy and Korea, reflecting the donors’ nationalities.

Since the vast majority of those who visit the library are tourists, he has named it the Travelers Library. Anyone can take a book; all Mr. Latif asks is that borrowers describe the stories contained in the pages of the books they return. Many visitors, who are Indians from other states and foreigners who come to see Dal Lake, leave behind their own books to add to his collection.

via Illiterate, but in Love With Books – NYTimes.com. Thanks to Kate Mayfield on Twitter for this.

A new book in the U.S., and a new book in the summer

Tomorrow, my second book The Poisoned Island is published in America by the lovely people at Washington Square Press/Atria. I’m hoping things go well – it’s already had a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, so fingers crossed. And I do like the cover.

Poisoned Island

In other news, I’m delighted to say I’ve signed a new two-book deal with publisher in the UK, Simon and Schuster. They’ll be publishing two more books featuring Constable Charles Horton, the first of which is called Savage Magic and is released this coming summer. It’s been a real pleasure working with S&S over the last couple of years, and I look forward to more fun over the coming months. There will be ARCs of Savage Magic available in a few weeks; if you’d like one, let me know.

 

 

What modern music will endure?

We’ve been having a splendid time on Facebook suggesting albums which we think we’ll still be listening to in 20 years, amid a morass of manufactured and shrill digital pop pap. I’ve embedded the thread here – care to join in?