Friday, 28 September 2012

The Ripper revisited

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

You’ll be relieved to hear that this week I’m not going to be banging on about the parlous state of publishing and the uncertainties for the future of the industry of which I am a very small part. You might be less relieved to learn that I’m going to spend my time telling you about my latest book.
            The Ripper Secret is my second book for Simon & Schuster and is, like the previous novel The Titanic Secret, set around a series of real-world events, in this case the brutal killings perpetrated in the Whitechapel area of London at the end of the nineteenth century by an unknown murderer who acquired the hideously appropriate nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’. What I’ve always found interesting about this particular serial killer – he almost certainly wasn’t the first man who met this definition by embarking on a killing spree over a period of time, but he’s definitely the most famous – is that even today, almost a century and a half after the events which cast a cloak of terror over the East End of London, his actions still throw a shadow over the city.
            People still travel to Whitechapel and the surrounding areas, looking for the streets where the Ripper walked in search of his victims, and organized tours of the murder sites – or rather what remain of the geographical locations because development in this part of London has hidden almost all of the sites under new roads and buildings – are still a popular tourist attraction.
And not only that, but almost every year a new non-fiction book is published which positively identifies yet another new subject as Jack the Ripper. The one characteristic most of these books seem to share is that the author has a very clear idea of exactly who the Ripper was, and then spends almost the entire book cherry-picking those pieces of evidence which support this contention, ignoring those which flatly contradict it and, in some cases, invent ‘facts’ from dubious sources to reinforce his or her argument. Very few books even attempt to carry out a proper and unbiased investigation of the Ripper killings and then come to a reasonable conclusion about the identity of the perpetrator.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my novel does neither, precisely because it is a novel. I am not attempting in this book to provide compelling evidence that my chosen subject was Jack the Ripper, although suggestions have been made in the past that he could have been. Nor am I trying to be selective in choosing which facts will be a part the story. Instead, I’ve tried to weave a believable plot around the Ripper killings, while sticking as rigidly as possible to the historical reality of that dark time in east London.
While I was researching the historical background of this book, a number of questions occurred to me, questions which very few people writing on the subject have ever attempted to answer. Most books have attempted simply to identify the murderer and little else.
In particular, few people ever seemed to have considered the following:

·         Why did the killings start?
·         Why did the mutilations get progressively more brutal with each succeeding murder?
·         Why did the killings stop?
·         And what possible motive was driving the murderer?

I don’t pretend that my novel actually identifies the real Jack the Ripper, but what it does do is provide logical and believable answers to those questions.
As to the actual identity of this most notorious of all serial killers, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that.
The Ripper Secret will be published by Simon & Schuster in the United Kingdom on 11 October 2012.

You can contact me at:
Twitter:          @pss_author
Facebook:      Peter Stuart Smith

Friday, 21 September 2012

Nothing new under the sun

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

There’s been one interesting development reported in the press recently which again serves to underline the widening gap between conventional – paperback and hardback – publication and electronic media. According to USA Today, the bestselling American author Tess Gerritsen released a mini e-book in advance of her new novel, published in August. The ‘teaser’ e-book, for want of a better expression, sold for only $1.99, making it a true impulse purchase, and was clearly intended to both appeal to her large existing readership so that they would have something else to read ahead of the publication of her novel, and also provide a cheap e-book that would allow people who’d never read a Gerritsen book to sample her writing and see if they liked it.
            The beauty of this kind of exercise, of course, is that the time taken between an author or publisher deciding that a novella or mini e-book is a good idea, to the finished work being available on Amazon can literally be a matter of a day or so after the manuscript has been completed. Contrast that with the length of time it would take a conventional publisher to achieve the same thing. Granted, my first published novel was a fairly weighty tome, well over 100,000 words, but that was delivered as a finished manuscript to the publisher in May 2003, and the book was finally released in August 2004, almost a year and a half later.
            The ability to react quickly and produce a book at short notice is completely beyond the ability of most publishing houses, and this is in no way their fault. The extended timescale is forced upon them by the various processes which are involved in the printing and publication of any book. The only time publishers do release a book quickly is for works like biographies which are issued a very short time after the death of the subject. And this can only be achieved, of course, because the entire manuscript has already been written by the biographer, and the only things missing are the date and circumstances of the death of that person
            I think this kind of very reactive approach to publishing, of getting additional publications out on the streets very quickly, is something we’re going to see a lot more of in the future, and not just as teasers to bridge the gap between publication dates of major novels. For example, if a book proved to be unexpectedly popular, the author could release a short work explaining how he got the idea for the book, the time it took to write it, and other material of that nature. A controversial work could be followed by a kind of expanded author’s note, detailing the sources for the published information and the reason the writer and publisher felt it was important to place the material in the public domain.
            In short, I believe this very flexible approach to publication could actually start a whole new trend, and it could only be achieved because of the existence of the Kindle and other electronic readers.
            But the corollary of this new development, obviously, will be the widening of the existing gap between readers who like books and readers who like to read books on an electronic device. As well as the obvious and well publicised advantages of the Kindle and its electronic kin, this new aspect to publishing might serve to drive more people towards making the jump to an e-reader of some sort, with a consequent knock-on effect in the sales of conventional books. And, of course, that will be another blow that both publishers and bookshops will have to absorb.
            And there’s another possibility as well, a possibility that actually takes publishing around in something of a full circle. Perhaps authors could consider releasing their books in serial format, selling them cheaply as electronic downloads in tranches of three or four chapters at a time, which would allow new readers of their books to sample their storytelling ability at almost no cost. And, quite probably, even if the serialised sections were very modestly priced, the cost of the complete work could be far more than most books are selling for today as Kindle downloads.
If this happens, it really would be a return to the good old days, because authors such as Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle released many of their books in this way as a matter of course, publishing their novels in serial form in popular newspapers of the day.
            Perhaps in publishing, as in so many other fields, there really is nothing new under the sun …

You can contact me at:
Twitter:          @pss_author
Facebook:      Peter Stuart Smith

Friday, 14 September 2012

The writing is on the (electronic) wall

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

There’s been both good news and bad news in the world of publishing in America just recently, your perception of the various reports being coloured significantly by exactly where you stand.
            According to Publishers Weekly, and their report was based on sales data supplied by Bowker Market Research, Amazon further extended its considerable lead in the book marketplace over the past twelve months, and today almost a third – 29% in fact – of all money spent on books passes through the tills at Amazon. That’s a big jump from the figure quoted last year, of 23%.
            Some other retailers are also improving their figures, though not by much. Barnes & Noble – still the world’s largest bookseller with both online and High Street retailers – managed a 1% shift – hardly a jump – from a 19% to 20% share of the market, and other online retailers, excluding both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, together accounted for roughly 10% of all spending on books by consumers. Adding the various sets of data together produces the unsurprising conclusion that well over half of all consumer spending on books is today done online.
            Independent bookstores are continuing to be less and less significant, this year holding only 6% of the marketplace, a fall of a third from their 9% share of a year earlier. Coming in at fourth in the sales figures are three separate outlets: the supermarket giant Wal-Mart, book clubs and Christian outlets, each holding about 4% of the market. Apart from Wal-Mart, American supermarkets only account for 1% of all book sales, a significantly lower percentage than in Britain, where the fiction buyer for Asda can literally decide whether or not a particular book will make it into the bestseller charts, based solely on his or her decision about whether or not Asda will stock it.
            The only other significant sales reported were the warehouse clubs which sold 3% of books, and Books-A-Million, the second largest American bookstore chain, which accounted for a mere 2% of all book sales.
            If I was investing money in any American bookstore chain apart from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I’d be worried. Remember that last year Borders accounted for roughly 10% of all book sales in Britain, and today the stores are shuttered and barred.
            Perhaps surprisingly, the study also showed that sales of ebooks only accounted for about 10% of all book revenue, and that women were responsible for 64% of all spending on ebooks. The demographic analysis was interesting as well, showing that the highest percentage of ebook purchases came from people in the 18-29 age range (31%), with the 30-44 year old buyers very close behind with 28%. The younger teens, in the 13-17 age range, only bought 5% of ebooks, so presumably the ‘Harry Potter effect’ has now started to die away.
            There was a slightly different poll conducted in a recent edition of USA Today, which asked readers how they obtained their most recent book. Less than half of those who responded (48%) said that they had bought it. Almost a quarter of them (24%) had borrowed it from either a friend or family member, and a further 14% had borrowed it from a library.
A somewhat surprising 13% ticked the ‘other’ box, which could mean that they found it, stole it – though most people wouldn’t consider books to be high value or desirable items in the eyes of most thieves – received it as a gift or obtained it from some kind of communal resource, like the paperback cupboard in a clubhouse. Those people reading electronic versions, of course, could well have downloaded the book for free from Amazon, either because the book was offered as a loss leader to advertise that particular author’s other works, or as a kind of free promotion ahead of the book going on sale at normal price.
But whatever the reason, the one fact that shone out very clearly from that particular survey was that less than half of those readers who answered had actually paid money for their current choice of literature, and that really cannot be good news for anybody involved in publishing, at any level or in any position.

You can contact me at:
Twitter:          @pss_author
Facebook:      Peter Stuart Smith

Friday, 7 September 2012

All Fired up

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

It’s not really my fault, but the future of publishing is what most people in the industry seem to be talking about at the moment, when they’re not wishing they’d written Fifty Shades instead of EL James and were banking the better part of a million pounds every week. And that’s not a misprint.
            Instead of looking at new books and what authors are up to at the moment – the two core components of the industry – most of the comments I’ve seen lately are still far more concerned with the industry as a whole: what does the future hold for agents, publishers and especially for bookshops? The general consensus seems to be that independent bookshops will probably survive, albeit in much smaller numbers than at present, and in order to attract and retain their customers they will have to offer far more to them than just a bunch of books sitting on shelves. They’ll have to do the kind of things that Amazon simply can’t compete with, like offering coffee and cakes and comfy seats while people browse, organizing book signings, author visits and book readings.
            And talking about Amazon, the literal ‘elephant in the room’, there will undoubtedly be competition in the future for the bookselling giant, and especially for its single bestselling item, the Kindle. And it looks like the most serious competition to this device will come from the Nook, produced by Barnes & Noble, and especially given the fact that Microsoft has taken a stake in the company, which means that Barnes & Noble now has both serious money and technological know-how behind it.
            Which seems like an appropriate moment to mention Amazon’s latest electronic product, the Kindle Fire. I’ve yet to handle one of these devices or even see it in the flesh, but I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced it’s going to enjoy anything like the runaway success of the Kindle itself.
            The beauty of the Kindle is that it quite literally provides a library in your pocket. With a capacity of up to 3,500 books, a battery that needs charging only once every three or four weeks, and the ability to download new books wirelessly almost everywhere, it’s very difficult to see why anybody who enjoys reading doesn’t own one. It even makes good financial sense, because of the huge number of ebooks available for free or for under about £3, in contrast to the typical RRP of a paperback novel of around £6.99.
            But the Kindle Fire is a very different animal. The most obvious difference is the colour screen on the Fire, and the fact that this device is far more than just a way of reading books. It’s essentially a tablet computer – a long way from being my favourite device – with a seven inch screen that also allows the user to play music, watch films, read colour magazines and a bunch of other things. All of which does, in my opinion, beg the question: why would you want to? Do you really want to sit down and watch a movie on a seven inch screen wearing earphones?
            OK, probably some people do. On trains I quite often see people hunched over mobile phones squinting at the tiny screen while some action sequence is displayed on it, to the accompaniment of tinny music leaking from their earphones. God knows what that does to your eyes after a while, but I suppose for these people the jump to the Fire’s much larger screen would be huge improvement. But it will of course mean that they would have to carry both a mobile phone and the Fire.
            On the pricing side, it’s not a bad deal, especially when compared to the ludicrously expensive iPad, with the 32GB Fire coming in at only £199, about half the price of the entry-level iPad, and doing pretty much the same things in a far more convenient package.
            But I think the biggest problem with the Fire is going to be the battery life. Amazon is claiming that the battery will last for 11 hours. For anybody familiar with claims made by computer companies, that number will be taken with a very large pinch of salt, and probably a more realistic estimate would be 8 to 9 hours, depending on usage. And that, no matter how you much you dress it up, is simply pathetic when compared to the original Kindle.
            So if you are thinking about buying one of the new devices principally to read books, don’t bother. Get the old-style one, and you won’t regret it for a moment. But if you really are the kind of person who wants to sit by yourself in a corner somewhere, watching a film on a screen you can cover with the palm of your hand, without a doubt the Fire will be a far better buy for you than the iPad.
            On the other hand, maybe you should just get out more …

You can contact me at:
Twitter:          @pss_author
Facebook:      Peter Stuart Smith

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Amazon Debate

By Richard Parker

There's a lot of debate online at the moment re the sock puppet attacks - sounds like a great name for a band...

I'm not going to say what's already been said but I would say that this would be Amazon's best opportunity to do what I've always hoped they would and completely scrap the star rating system.  Writers, readers and publishers have all become completely obsessed by it and it would certainly be one less headache for all concerned.

I think book reviews are still very necessary and, as there are many passionate book bloggers out there who work hard to bring their constructive opinions to other readers via their sites this would be an excellent way for shoppers to find out more about a potential purchase if they needed further convincing.

Perhaps Amazon could link up to some of the established, rated sites in the way that bloggers will put a link to a book's Amazon page.  Bloggers could submit their sites to Amazon and when you visit a book's page Amazon could give you a links to several of the sites featuring differing reviews of the book.

Perhaps this would be unworkable but there must be an alternative to a system that no longer fulfills its initially straightforward purpose.

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