Saturday, 25 February 2012

The changing world of publishing

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

We’ve been here before, venturing into uncharted territory.
            There was an interesting article in the Daily Mail this week which discussed recently released figures about the world of fiction, and in particular the impact which self-publishing – and in particular e-book publishing – is having upon the market.
            The article stated that The Bookseller now estimated that as many as one quarter of the novels sold as e-books in the United Kingdom had been written by unpublished authors, many of them driven to take that route to publication simply because they had been unable to find a commercial publisher willing to take them on.
            You can understand the frustration of many people, when all they ever get from publishers and agents is a series of bland rejection slips: the temptation to simply say ‘to hell with them’ and format the manuscript for Kindle and stick it on Amazon must be almost overwhelming. The problem from the point of view of the reader, I suppose, is that because these e-book authors haven’t been taken on by mainstream publisher it means that the quality of the work, of the novel itself, is clearly unknown until it is purchased and read. But with most of these e-books being priced at less than the cost of a cup of coffee, some of them even less than £1, does it really matter if what you have bought turns out to be complete and unmitigated rubbish?
            And the reality of the situation is that an awful lot of these books are really rather good – I’ve recently read several that are definitely of commercial standard – and it does make you wonder why the author wasn’t taken on by a publisher. Of course, there are legions of stories about the crass inability of publishing houses to spot a book that anybody with an ounce of brain would be able to see had ‘bestseller’ stamped all over it. If I remember correctly, The Day of the Jackal was rejected almost 50 times, and the first of the ‘Harry Potter’ books was picked up almost by accident.
            But we now seem to be in a situation where e-books – and self-published e-books in particular – are seriously competing with the output from commercial publishers. Again according to The Bookseller, in the second half of 2011, 26% of adult fiction bought in the United Kingdom was self-published and sold through outlets such as Amazon. That suggests that the writing is very clearly on the wall, if mainstream publishing has already lost over one quarter of the e-book market.
            Possibly even more alarming – or encouraging, depending entirely upon where you are standing – is that Amazon’s bestselling book for the last quarter of 2011 was written by a first-time novelist. His name is Kerry Wilkinson, and his crime novel Locked in and the other books in the series have now sold over a quarter of a million copies. Entirely unsurprisingly, a number of commercial publishers are now actively pursuing Mr Wilkinson, contracts in hand. Whether he’ll be interested in swapping the 40% or 70% profit he can obtain from Amazon every time he sells an e-book for the 7% royalty he’ll get each time a paperback sells is another matter entirely.
            Also interesting is that Kerry Wilkinson didn’t do much in the way of publicising his book, claiming he just told his friends on Facebook and Twitter, and mentioned it in a couple of forums, so presumably it was word-of-mouth which turned his novel into a bestseller.
            Another well-known self-publishing success was G P Taylor, though he went into print rather than producing an e-book, simply because the facility was not available to him at the time. The former vicar sold his motorcycle to pay for the first print run of his children’s novel Shadowmancer, which sold well because of word-of-mouth advertising, and the rights to which, and the next six books in the series, were then bought by Faber & Faber for a reputed £3.5 million.
            Two authors named Louise Voss and Mark Edwards tried selling two thrillers to British publishers, but received only rejection slips. They then wrote another book together – Catch Your Death – which they published through Amazon. To date, this has sold over 42,000 copies online. And, just as in the other examples quoted, these two first-time authors are now under contract to a mainstream publisher – in this case HarperCollins – which reportedly paid a six figure sum for the rights.
            Overall, sales of e-books increased by a fifth in the United Kingdom in 2010, to an impressive £180 million, and when figures for 2011 are available, it is anticipated that these will show a further rise of up to 25%.
            The one thing which seems to me to be fairly clear about this is that the role of the literary agent is becoming less and less important. If an author simply cannot find anybody to take him or his work seriously, there’s an absolutely nothing to stop him self-publishing an e-book and then letting market forces – the ultimate arbiter of success or failure – decide whether or not it’s any good. And if it is good, the next call the author gets won’t be from an agent, but from a publisher offering him a fat cheque and eager to secure a place on that particular bandwagon.
            As the Chinese say, as a curse, not a blessing: May you live in interesting times. And we’re certainly doing that.

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Friday, 17 February 2012

Snuff Books

By Richard Jay Parker

I read an article this morning about the glut of Whitney Houston biogs suddenly available online since her sad death.  They're being referred to as 'snuff books.'  Seems an unfortunate term as, in terms of its definition, the word 'snuff' became synonymous with something distinctly more unsavoury than inhaling tobacco.  Snuff movies have been the subject of much speculation - as well as the storyline for movies with actual actors in.

Snuff books is a term used to categorise a new phenomena that illustrates exactly how instantaneous online publishing can be.

Of course, a lot of them are thrown together or have the death details quickly tacked on the end but then so do a lot of the books that are published six months after the event.  Fact is a lot will be downloaded, particularly if they're cheap.  It's another example of how the digital format can respond to an event. 

OK this isn't the best example but it does signal a world for readers where the newspaper and the book combine and their copy is available as quickly as a 21st century reader demands.

Is it ASIN? 

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The genesis of a book

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

I’ve always been interested in how writers come up with ideas for books. I remember reading a very long time ago that Agatha Christie created one of her gentle murder mysteries with the title Why didn’t they ask Evans? simply because one of her acquaintances put down the book he had been reading with an expression of disgust and uttered that line as a comment on the novel. She also famously remarked that all you needed for a novel was ‘a title and a plot – the rest is mere spadework’.
            I imagine that in many cases, an author is simply struck by a line of text or an overheard remark or some other entirely unrelated piece of information and that starts a train of thought which culminates in a book.
            The idea for one of my ‘James Barrington’ novels – Foxbat – arrived in a somewhat circuitous fashion when I still had a proper job in the Royal Navy. Some of my work involved the investigation of incidents involving military aircraft. As part of this I had to study classified documents relating to Russian aircraft, and one incident in particular stuck in my mind.
            This was the landing at Japan’s Hakodate airport of a Russian fighter pilot named Viktor Belenko, who arrived there in a somewhat spectacular fashion flying the USSR’s fastest combat aircraft, the MiG-25 Foxbat. Just as an aside, the NATO convention for naming aircraft means that all fighters are given a name beginning with the letter ‘F’, like Fulcrum, Flogger, Foxhound and so on, while bombers are given names starting with a ‘B’, for example Bison, Badger and Blinder.
            Anyway, the Foxbat’s arrival was the most significant intelligence coup of the period, because it meant that the Americans could reduce the aircraft to its component parts and properly assess its capabilities, which they duly did, before returning it to the Russians. The reports – several of which were then classified at Top Secret and above – made interesting reading. In particular, the American experts were surprised at how primitive its avionics were, because they still used valve technology instead of solid-state circuitry. They were also surprised at how fast it was. The Mach meter was redlined at 2.8, but on at least one occasion Israeli radar had tracked a MiG-25 at Mach 3.2.
            But in summary, the Americans were relieved by what they had discovered, and basically wrote off the aircraft as fast but clumsy, and decided it probably wouldn’t be a match in air combat for any of the current US air superiority fighters.
            It was only some years later that I saw another report which pointed out that the Russians hadn’t built the MiG-25 to fight against any American aircraft, and explained just how clever the design actually was. The authors of that report concluded that the Foxbat employed valve technology for a very good reason. The aircraft was designed to survive a nuclear exchange, and when an atomic bomb explodes the electromagnetic pulse, the EMP, fries solid-state circuitry, but has no effect on valves. In short, the reason for the basic avionics and the very high speed of the MiG-25 was because its primary task was the interception of ICBMs in their terminal phase, when they’re essentially freefalling towards their targets.
            Whether or not the aircraft, even equipped with the latest missile systems, would have been able to achieve this tasking is something of a moot point, and as far as I know the Russians never officially confirmed this analysis.
            But that possibility set me thinking about using the aircraft in a book, and I decided that the obvious country to make use of the MiG-25’s abilities was North Korea, whose leadership apparently believed they could take on America – and win. Granted, at the time the book was set, one of those leaders – Kim Il-sung –was dead, though still officially in charge, as he still is today in fact, as the ‘Eternal President’, and his son Kim Jong-il, the then current ruler, was very possibly insane.
            That idea was the basis of the book. Just in passing, I had to do quite a lot of research about the North Korean regime and the situation inside the country – or what little was known about it – and I very quickly came to the conclusion that, although the leadership was deluded and the people there really little more than slaves, the country’s military ability and defensive capability is actually very impressive. If America did ever decide to invade North Korea, they would find it almost impossible to prevail without resorting to nuclear weapons.
            Compared to taking on North Korea, Vietnam would just have seemed like a walk in the park.

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Friday, 10 February 2012

A break!

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

As I write this, I find myself in the rare position of not actually having a looming deadline. In fact, that’s not strictly true, because I have to deliver my second novel of the present contract to Simon & Schuster by next Wednesday, but the book is finished and I’m just giving it a final read through before I send it off to my delightful editor there. She, no doubt, ably assisted by her assistant, another charming lady, will probably take a machete to the plot and hack it to death, but that’s fine by me. As always, I’m far too close to the book to see the errors and problems which will be glaringly obvious to a third party, reading it for the first time.
            My latest novel for Transworld is now with the copy editor, so my work on it is largely finished apart from checking and incorporating whatever suggestions he or she makes, and then the final read through the proof pages when the typesetters have done their bit.
One of the things which has always puzzled me about this last phase of the process before the book goes to print is the way that unexpected errors creep in. Logically, the conversion process from my Word file to whatever program the typesetters use should be electronic, a straight digital conversion. They should take my text and simply insert it into their program, which should mean that the integrity of the text will be preserved. But actually, it isn’t. I’ve lost count of the number of tiny errors – a letter dropped out of a word, a punctuation mark that mysteriously vanishes – which appear at this stage. One that I remember is ‘what’ being changed to ‘wat’.
Very odd, and another reminder, if one was needed, that this final check of the manuscript is just as important as all of the other checks which preceded it. And the other niggle, I suppose, is that having first written the book, then gone through the editing process, then responded to the copy editor’s comments, by the time the proof pages arrive, most authors will be heartily sick of the sight of thing, and just want to see the book on the shelves in Waterstones and WH Smith.
It’s also interesting that, even after all this exhaustive editing, checking and proof-reading, both by the author and by numerous other people, there will still be mistakes in the manuscript.
And it’s not just me. On one of the cruises on which I was a speaker, one of the other lecturers was Jeffrey Archer, and he reminded me that it was only when one of his books had actually been published that it was discovered that he’d got the capital of Switzerland wrong. He’d said the book that it was either Z├╝rich or Geneva – I can’t remember which – but of course it’s actually Berne or Bern.
            The other problem for an author is that because you’ve actually written the book, you know what’s coming – or you should do, I hope. So you tend to see what you expect to see, and read what you expect to read, rather than what is actually there. That’s why it’s so critically important to take your time and read every single word, ideally aloud, because for some reason reading the book that way seems to identify errors that you’ll never find simply by looking at it on the screen of a computer.
            So, anyway, I’m able to have a bit of a break now. Or at least, that was the plan. But I had a telephone call this week which means I have to get back to work, albeit in an entirely different field, right away. I’m one of the lecturers on the inaugural cruise of the Saga Sapphire which sails to the Mediterranean late in March, and I’ll probably have to give at least six different lectures on board, so I’ll be preparing them for the next few weeks.
            It should be an interesting trip, and the ship will be visiting Civitavecchia. My guess is that, along with many of the other people on board, I’ll be up on deck when we leave that port, just making sure that the captain doesn’t steer the ship too close to any of the offshore islands …

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Finished Product

By Richard Jay Parker

Ebooks mean that not only do people discuss their progress through a book in terms of percent but reviews now seem to include more and more references to layout and accessibility.  The most common new additions to reader critiques, however, are the references to typos.

I've got plenty of paper books on my shelves published by renowned houses which still contain some howling errors often within the first couple of pages.  They've always crept in but now readers of digital content seem to be anticipating them.     

With so much old and new content being uploaded as well as publishing houses rushing out hastily formatted ebooks it seems that the rigorous measures taken to ensure a manuscript is as polished as possible before a print run are being bypassed.

It now seems to be accepted as inevitable by reviewers and a new string to their bows to include their favourites.  Some are amusing but you wonder whether sacrificing these filters is really worth it.  Is the time it would take really worth leapfrogging at the expense of the publisher/author's reputation?

It's certainly something to consider whether you're a major publisher or an enterprising self publisher.  Perhaps pushing that digital publish button is too tempting and too easy.  After all, it's hard enough getting good reviews for a book without a typo on every other page. 

Incidentally, I made some deliberate errors during this piece - did you spot them?

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Sunday, 5 February 2012

Why we read crime fiction

I was very pleased to receive an invitation from BBC 3 Counties Radio this week to discuss the popularity of crime fiction live on air. This was in response to a recent report from the library service that crime novels have overtaken romance as the most borrowed genre in 2011.

The 10 most popular authors on the list were crime writers, with James Patterson at number 1 and two of Lee Child’s titles in the top 10. Most of the authors live in the US, Ian Rankin being the only UK resident author in the top 10.

I had an earlier inkling of this when a Hertfordshire librarian kindly emailed me to let me know that I was the second most borrowed author at that library for 2011, second only to James Patterson.

The question the BBC presenter posed was why has crime fiction increased in popularity in recent times?

In Victorian times people were uneasily aware of high profile killers like Jack the Ripper. Equipped with little more than bicycles, whistles and good intentions, the police in those days were ineffective. Sherlock Holmes captured the public imagination as a precursor of superman as much as of Poirot and Rebus, because it was immensely reassuring to read about a detective guaranteed to outwit the evil villain. It still seems incredible that many people thought he really existed, but we believe what we want to believe.

In the wake of 9/11 and with growing problems of recession, we are increasingly conscious of the battle for survival, on a global and an individual level. Add to this the decline in religious belief, and it is hardly surprising that so many people are turning to crime fiction as an escape from an unjust world where very little seems to make any sense.

However disturbing crime novels are, we know some sort of moral order will be restored in the end. That is the reason for their appeal. The less the world around us makes sense, the more popular the genre is likely to become, as library borrowings demonstrate.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Reviews and reviewing

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

Yesterday I did something that I very rarely do: I went to Amazon and I checked the numbers of my last three books and glanced at the reviews as well. I suppose other authors find the Amazon numbering system for books and other products just as incomprehensible as I do, though I suppose it does provide some kind of guide as to how well or badly a particular book is doing.
            The reviews are slightly easier to understand, though again there is a kind of subtext which runs through the system. For example, my ‘James Barrington’ and ‘Max Adams’ books seem to get consistently good reviews, probably because they are mainstream thrillers in well-identified genres, and most people who comment on them probably read that kind book as the norm.
In contrast, because my ‘James Becker’ novels deal – sometimes obliquely, but sometimes very directly – with religion, and especially with Christianity, I seem to get almost as many one star reviews as five-star, depending, presumably, upon the sensitivity of the toes upon which the story treads. This is probably inevitable, because Christianity, like every other religion, is based upon faith and not upon fact, and many believers react quite violently when issues of historical reality, issues which clash with their cosy belief system, are presented, even in the context of a novel.
There are other reviews which appear to be motivated primarily by spite. Usually short and abusive, these often seem to be written by people who are keen to promote other books on the same or a related subject, and apparently don’t like the idea of competition. They often include a sentence along the lines of: ‘This book is complete rubbish, but if you’re interested in finding out more about this subject, I recommend XXX by ZZZ – he really knows what he’s talking about.’ Again, they’re not that difficult to spot.
At the other extreme are the gushing – but almost always very short – reviews, usually written by somebody called ‘A Customer’ or similar, who have often never submitted a previous contribution on Amazon. It’s fairly clear that these have been written by a friend of the author in an attempt to increase the book’s ranking on the system. If this is done by one author to try to boost the sales of a friend’s book, it’s known as ‘log-rolling’ in the trade.
            In fact, there are probably as many reasons for writing a review as there are types of review. In my experience, the best reviewers are those who write the most, both in terms of the length of each review and in the numbers they submit, who approach every book with an open mind and who deliver an unbiased and honest critique of the work without any kind of hidden agenda.
            Which brings to mind a good friend, who does something quite unlike anybody else I’ve ever met. He’s a prolific reader, whose tastes run to serious literary works – he rereads Proust every couple of years, for example, and you don’t get much more serious or more literary than that – and the biographies of senior politicians and businessmen, most of whom he knows or knew on a personal basis. Every time he reads a book, he hand-writes a review of it in a notebook which he keeps for that specific purpose. Nobody else sees the review, and he wouldn’t dream of publishing it on Amazon or anywhere else. And when he reads a book again, he writes another review of the same work, and then looks at the earlier version to see if his opinion or his comments have changed significantly. For him, it’s obviously a labour of love, but I think for many people it would appear to be a completely pointless activity.
            I suppose the basic question is whether or not the reviews on Amazon actually achieve anything at all. For me, they do, because I almost invariably look at what other people have said about a particular book before I decide whether or not to buy it. I try to disregard both the gushing and the spiteful reviews, read a few of those which appear to have been written by people with brains and an unbiased attitude, and then make a decision. Usually, that seems to work, and I rarely disagree with the majority of the opinions which have been expressed.
            But in the end, of course, any review is entirely subjective, just the opinion of one man or woman, and no author, no matter how talented or capable, is ever going to satisfy every reader out there.
            In fact, I’m reminded of an excellent piece of advice given to a public performer – I can’t remember if it was an actor, actress or singer – on the subject of reviews. The advice was: ‘Don’t ever read any of the reviews written about you. Just weigh them.’

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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Location, Location, Location

by Matt Lynn

In the estate agency business, they always say location, location, and location are the three most important factors when choosing a  house. I’m starting to think the same thing may apply to writing a thriller as well.

I’ve just published the second in Black Ops series of e-novellas – Black Ops: El Dorado, the follow-up to Black Ops: Libya. Thriller locations, and indeed plots, have a tendency to be all the same. The Middle East. Russian gangsters. Al-Queda terrorists. Plots to blow up the White House. To be honest, we’ve read most of them already.

But a few months ago, I read a story in the New York Times about how the drugs cartels in Columbia had switched from cultivating cocaine to illegal gold mining – because the gold price was now so high it was more profitable for them.

Gold? Drugs cartels? Illegal mining?

What more could a thriller writer ask for?

All of a sudden I had a really original location for a short action-adventure story.

And one that hadn’t been done to death already. 

Hidden Treasure

By Richard Jay Parker

Following on from my piece about ebook piracy I was interested to see author Paul Coehlo is now actively encouraging readers to pirate his work.  His theory is that the more his work is distributed (even for free) the more he sells.  This seems to be the verdict of a number of authors who find their sales rocketing when they give away material.

Writers are arguing that Mr Coehlo is an established and wealthy author with a worldwide reputation who can afford to take a financial hit but I think the cogent part of his argument is that he can do nothing about it anyway so why not celebrate the fact that people want to get their hands on his work and may well invest in the future.

It brings us back to the whole nebulous territory of book promotion and how difficult it is to gauge exactly what it is you can do to make readers interested in your work.  Word of mouth is something that can't be measured.  It would be wonderful if there was a tracking device that allowed you to know exactly how many sales were a result of it but I don't think we'll ever see that software.

Piracy is a fact of life and although, in the short term, it appears to deprive writers of revenue it's interesting to note the increasing amount of writers who look upon it as a promotional tool.

Take a look at your own bookshelf.  I'm sure you'll find plenty of books that were passed on to you free of charge.  Any of those lead you to buy some of the other books there?  I'm not saying writers should be pirated but in a new digital age it's no longer feasible for us to think in black and white.

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