Archives for the month of: April, 2015

Why are feelings against traditional publishers so extreme among indie authors? In this blog post from last September Mike Shatzkin suggested: “These publisher-bashers have managed to ‘do it’ without them [traditional publishers], and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were ‘this is hard, but I managed to do it’ whereas the message feels much more like ‘anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.’”

Now some publishing-bashers may well be motivated by this sort of Nah-nah-na-na-nah approach, but I believe there are lots of authors who really have been disappointed by their publishers. (There are also, of course, plenty of authors who appreciate what their publishers have done for them.) Maybe the book didn’t sell: in the trade world failure to start strongly can result in cascading neglect, as attention is concentrated on the winners. Trade is not a marathon; it’s a sprint, which if successful can turn into a world-record beating middle-distance race. If you enter that race expecting the start to resemble a marathon, you will be disappointed. For myself I’d regard the cause of the disappointment my own misjudgment of the event, not the organizers’ “deception” in arranging for a 100 meter sprint rather than a more measured race. But one can see how others might think their book every bit as good as the winner’s, and come to the conclusion that it was their trainer who let them down by not giving them a better start. The risk of pissing off authors comes with the publishing territory of course. A book may be brilliant, and, although published perfectly, still not catch the wave. Getting people to like something is not a science: we just try the things we know have worked in the past, and hope they’ll work well again. No trade publisher takes on book in order to see it fail to reach 3,000 sales. We all believe all our ducklings are swans. But sometimes the swan-fanciers are looking the other way.

Disappointed authors just have to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. One insidious problem, created by reality not wicked publishers, is that if your book failed to catch on, your next one will tend to be regarded with some suspicion. As I said “getting people to like something is not a science” — indeed it’s more like reciting a magic spell with your fingers crossed. A record of failure is not a good basis for making progress. This is harsh: but it is real. It’s also overcome-able. Self publishing may be an excellent way to overcome it too. But if the self-published book sells brilliantly that doesn’t mean someone at your trade house went out and sabotaged your first one. It just means that in life’s lottery you didn’t draw the winning ticket on the first round. To me this is so glaringly obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but the tone of the comments of the trad-publishing-bashers shows the contrary. Read the comments at The Passive Voice on Shatzkin’s blog post. So many, so (often) vicious. Another outspoken opponent of traditional publishing, Dean Wesley Smith claims publishing has changed — it’s left him rather than him leaving it. It’s actually rather hard to disagree with what he says: the industry has changed. But then so too has the world. Publishing is no longer a small-scale boutique industry, able to deliver reasonable results for a wide range of titles because, by and large, expectations were just lower all round. The world turns: get over it.

Warren Adler’s piece at Publishing Perspectives is actually telling that same story. He’s a successful self-published author, but warns people wanting to dive into this crowded pond that success can be elusive. Sure lightning strikes: just not reliably and predictably. (Sounds a bit like traditional publishing doesn’t it?) Another Publishing Perspectives piece, a review of Lynn Isenberg’s Author Power, suggests that self publishing may be a route back to the days before a proper publishing industry had developed, and authors depended on the patronage of a wealthy patron. She suggests getting sponsorships from companies — almost a placement payment. Why not? Although I still insist that if money’s what you are after, writing (or publishing) a book is not the most likely route to success.


This infographic comes via Ink, Bits, & Pixels. Having been produced by Lulu, a publishing services provider, it shows a result which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Clearly locating 3,000 readers might be a different matter for a traditional publisher than for a self-publisher. It doesn’t really require any fancy illustration to let us know that if you can sell the same number of books doing it yourself you’ll make more money than having to share the profit with a publisher. But the “if” is a big one.

For those weighing their options Jane Friedman has created and updated an infographic working through the decision-making process. It is a bit hard to read on screen, but she says it can be printed, which should make it clearer. You can read it on screen though if you follow the link above, click on the chart, and then click the + magnifying glass in the header line.


IMG_0136The Passive Voice links to a Wall Street Journal story about Jane Austen’s popularity. Is it over the top to claim that she is the most popular author since her lifetime (who before was more popular for that matter)? In fact her popularity only really got going in the years following World War II. Alexander McCall Smith writes “What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.” Of course Mr McCall Smith has a climate of opinion all of his own to create: he’s just written “Emma: A Modern Retelling” (Pantheon), published on April 7.

I guess Mr McCall Smith does have a point — Jane Austen does appear to have attracted more fan fiction than Dickens and Tolstoy. Here is a link to BookBub Blog‘s round-up of 10 modern versions of Jane Austen’s works, including his. I suppose you could write a raunchy version of War and Peace or David Copperfield, and for all I know fans are busily engaged on just this sort of thing. The site may or may not be comprehensive (how on earth could one know?) but it does show Jane outpacing most other “serious” writers. The count of fan fiction books based on her works is: Pride and Prejudice 3,600+, Emma 333, Sense and Sensibility 166, Persuasion 128, Mansfield Park 58, Northanger Abbey 36, for a total of more than 4,300. Dickens comes in at 579, with Tolstoy trailing at 53 books taking off from War and Peace. Of course the Austen numbers are eclipsed by Harry Potter fan fictions: 712,000, and the Twilight series: 218,000. J. R. R. Tolkein (63,000) is also popular. Les misérables clocks in at 4,400 on its own!


Click to enlarge

We just visited Bath — just look at those Austenesque chimneys above — a city which doesn’t beat you over the head with Jane Austen, though Waterstones did have a little window display capitalizing on the connection which comes via Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

What can it be that causes this phenomenon? Of course her books are good, but they are perhaps good in a decorous way. Their focus on money as a marriage motive, and the elegant dance involved in achieving a life of security for a young lady, do treat the subject with a light, glancing touch, refusing to spell out “the facts” — unsurprisingly of course given the time at which they were written. I suppose it’s not too amazing that fans might think that dotting the i-s and crossing the t-s might be a fun exercise. Dickens’ effects are rather more direct. His humor is out there, in your face. His female characters tend to peek out from behind a heavily sentimental curtain, so I think this means that the “provocation” to embroider on their relationships with their male counterparts is less of a titillation. IMG_1861The Economist’s Intelligent Life says “Readers of Austen share an impulse for self-identification that few other authors enjoy.” The Assembly Rooms make you see Catherine Moreland looking out for Henry Tilney. In the end, you can imagine a Jane Austen heroine in bed with her lover, but not, I think, a Dickens lady. Am I saying that she’s the better writer? I don’t mean to: better at creating “live” characters perhaps. Dickens does always seem to be teetering on the edge of the cliff of pastiche: but the supreme trickster always manages to keep his footing. Of course none of the foregoing should be taken as implying that all fan fictions are bodice-rippers — I have not read any of them, and have no plans to do so.

The Wikipedia article on “The reception history of Jane Austen” is impressively thorough. The text of her books is subject to some academic dispute. It always seemed wrong to me that R. W. Chapman should have used the techniques of classical textual criticism to create the Oxford University Press Austen text. We are hardly recreating an ur-text from fragmentary remains, although it is true that no final manuscripts exist. Austen died before Northanger Abbey and Persuasion came off the press, but can we not assume that the text of the earlier published books represented something like her final intentions? The Cambridge edition presents a less-comma-laden text than Chapman gave us.

I wish we could know how many copies of her books are sold every year. Lots, I expect, despite the fact that they are all available as free e-books.

We all recognize, I think, that reading a book is good for you. But I expect we mostly think the goodness resides in discovering new things, experiencing new emotions, and that sort of indirect benefit. But it turns out it’s good for your health too. BBC Culture explains how it is you can read yourself happy, and happy is healthy. “As author Jane Smiley confides in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, ‘Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book’.” This may be laying it on a bit thick, but the word “book” does carry a positive resonance for us all I think. For me it conjures up an image of David Livingstone reading away by candle light, intent on self-improvement. This vision comes accompanied by a special smell — “bookish” to me, but like all smells ultimately unspecifiable. The image and the smell both seem to come from my early school days.

Evidence for the straight-on health benefits of reading seems weakish though. Might it not be going too far to state as they do in “Reading is good for your health” at Science Daily that “People with poor reading skills are likely to be less healthy than those who read easily, according to recent research. Literacy skills are important for keeping in good shape”? I expect that poor health and poor literacy are positively correlated with being poor in general. I’d rather conclude that both are effects of poverty than that one is caused by the other. A similarly titled article from Science 2.0 quotes ex-Scotland rugby international and Strictly Come Dancing star Kenny Logan: “I left school at 16 not being able to read or write. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided to do something about it. I went through a program for dyslexia and after several months of hard work, I managed to transform my reading skills and learning ability. Being able to read has made such a massive difference to my life.” But just a minute, he was hardly an abject failure as a young man. Playing rugby for Scotland (which I assume he did before age 30) would certainly have made a massive difference to my life. I suspect Kenny was pretty healthy even before he could read — after all you’ve got to move it on Strictly Come Dancing. But of course we should be glad he has made the transition from non-reader to reader, and hope his example inspires others. I guess it was probably unrealistic to hope for evidence that by reading more I can get fewer colds. At least reading will make the cold-having seem less boring.

It turns out that not only is reading good for you; so too is writing. The New York Times has a story on 20 January, “Writing Your Way to Happiness”. Writing a personal narrative has apparently been found to reduce symptoms in cancer patients, among other good effects. This important news has probably been suppressed in the past. After all, if all you have to do to get rid of the blues is read a book, or write a little personal journal, how are the shrinks going to stay in business? Of course writing your story might ultimately be seen as little different from telling it orally while stretched out on a couch. Writing as therapy is used more widely than in psychotherapy only: this piece from KERA tells of poetry workshops with dementia patients (via The Passive Voice).

On the other hand here’s news from TechCrunch that Facebook can depress you. Can’t be the right sort of reading.


ST-maya7341428096065Is this more than an embarrassment? Well it’s certainly that. The quote used on our new Maya Angelou stamp is apparently not from her works, it’s actually from Joan Walsh Aglund’s book A Cup of Sun.

Maya Angelou may have spoken the words, even if she didn’t originate them (though in the form used they are a slight misquotation). As The Washington Post tells us,”Last year, in remarks at the presentation of the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal, President Obama attributed the quote to Angelou: ‘The late, great Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Each of the men and women that we honor today has a song — literally, in some cases. For others, it’s a talent, or a drive, or a passion that they just had to share with the world.’”

Probably easier if we just add this sentence to a new edition of her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with a quiet acknowledgement to Ms Aglund!

(Link via Book Patrol.)

Open Culture‘s post describes W.H.Auden’s syllabus for a University of Michigan course in 1941, illustrated below. That’ll keep you busy.


John suggests in Comments to “Do we need bookshops?” that the one thing you can’t get on-line is an author-signed book (well he did say e-book). But it’s not really that much of a problem. If Margaret Atwood can invent software in 2004 to permit remote signing via the internet, can she not sign the e-book too? According to this Publishing Perspectives story the Long Pen can indeed also be used to sign an e-book. BlogCritics has the story too. It all sounds pretty old hat actually — which is perhaps cause for concern. If it’s been around so long, how come we haven’t all experienced it?

Maybe the real question is why would you want the author to sign your e-book? What is the reality of an e-signature? Does it increase your e-book’s second-hand value? Does it even have a second-hand value? Is there in fact a second-hand market for e-books?  Ink, Bits, & Pixels appears to be suggesting there’s no such market, though in 2013 TechCrunch was reporting Amazon’s having obtained a patent to enable them to do so. The Amazon site obscures the issue by all its talk about Prime and unlimited access, but as far as I can see “second-hand e-book” is not one of your purchasing options.

Autographs are a bit of an odd phenomenon. I did once use to thrust an autograph book in front of sweaty rugby players but have long since lost sight of that trove. My mother-in-law has an autograph book containing the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Martin, but the ink fades with years and you have to take much of it on trust. Our signed photo of rookie Derek Jeter on a snowy opening day is crisp and clear, but the signature can only just be made out now. Is this evanescence part of their appeal?

This video shows Long Pen in action.

Now here is something different. At The Scholarly Kitchen Joe Esposito suggests we shouldn’t compete with Amazon by duplicating Amazon: we need to make buying a book something that can be done from within Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever. Now of course anyone can speculate about anything, and we innocents can get easily get carried away with enthusiasm. But I do rather trust Joe Esposito, and I recommend reading his whizz-bang piece. For publishers who like me can’t figure out how this would work, here’s a link to Aerbook, who offer to do it all for you.

And for the sentimental among us, Mr Esposito’s vision does include a bricks and mortar component! “Stores are the new black in the world of e-commerce” says Scott Galloway of NYU Stern in a hectic but fascinating presentation linked to towards the bottom of Mr Esposito’s piece. It’s worth listening to, so I have linked to it here also. He sees trouble ahead for single-play retail companies like Amazon, quoting Macy’s as an example of a company with a more diversified base. He predicts Amazon will move into bricks and mortar retail within a year. These people are all saying such exciting things at such a volume that one feels almost compelled to agree while knowing nothing about the facts!

So it all sounds quite simple: all we publishers have to do is build book-buying into our social media, and we’ll be fine. Why do I wonder what Amazon’s reasons would be for just sitting there doing nothing and letting this all happen to them? Couldn’t they try the same social media trick? Or are they too far downstream to be able to compete with the originators? We don’t actually have to sell books to them once we’ve established another way of reaching the customer! Or does their new Amazon Home Services suggest a new direction?

Maybe showrooming is ultimately irrelevant. We talk about being able to touch and feel the book as a necessary preliminary to buying it, but is that just because that’s what we’ve always done when visiting a bookstore? And because that’s what we do, maybe we have come to think that it’s an essential step in the process. As John Samples points out in his comment on “Do we need bookshops?”, recommendations from booksellers rarely seem to make any difference to our buying decisions, and there are lots of better sources available to us. Maybe it’s just time to cut out this sentimentality; buying a book without handling it is not really a problem. Here’s a Bookseller piece from 29 September reporting on a Nielsen survey of retail behavior in Britain.  “43% said they often check out products in a shop before buying online – a practice known as ‘showrooming’. Nielsen said this was most likely to happen for books, holidays, pet products and clothing, shoes or accessories.” So we do do it, but are we not also quite happy to buy clothes and shoes on-line without any such touchy-feely interlude? You can always return them after all. I suspect that the need to showroom books may be less than for shoes.

Maybe a straw in the wind: The Bookseller reports that on-line book sales exceeded in-store purchases in Britain for the first time in 2014.


Lots of people have said that the arrival of digital books should free us from the design constraints established over the centuries for printed books. Unsurprisingly action in this regard has been a while coming. Here are some early signs of development. The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz is described in this Gizmodo post. I think the techy enthusiasm is a bit overstated. The New World is a fine book, but its technical “breakthroughs” are neat but not utterly amazing. You read it on the Atavist app which is available fee of charge. There are no page breaks: each chapter is one “page”. You scroll down till you get to the end. That’s logical. The text is unjustified, with a regular word space, an arrangement which (to me) is superior to say Kindle’s fixation with justification. When you get to the end of the chapter you swipe right to left to move to the next chapter. About half way through it reaches another title page labelled Cycle Two and at that point an arrow indicates that you start swiping left to right to navigate back as it were to the new chapters. In each chapter the text is enclosed in a colored box, maroon for Jane’s point-of-view and blue for Jim’s. When the viewpoint is shared the colors mingle, turning gradually to a deep purple. The final chapter is in its own Cycle, Three, and has no color border.

IMG_0134This zigzag navigation is picked up in the chapter heading design. Illustrated at the left is the start of the final chapter, in Cycle Three. When you start to work through the book you only see the top box above the text, which as you progress gets more and more zigs and zags; one for each chapter. When you make the turn to Cycle Two the second row appears and fills from right to left with zigs as you progress from chapter to chapter. The final Cycle contains only the one chapter and, as symbolized by the design, is in effect endless, finishing up with a repetition over and over of some phrases from Jane and Jim’s wedding vows. I am not 100% sure of this, but it appears that the narrative action has reached its furthest forward point at the switch over from Cycle One to Cycle Two, neatly mirrored in the reverse direction of your swiping from chapter to chapter. Cycle Two is flashback and Cycle Three a sort of beyond-the-grave kind of communication, I think. The chapter heading design does echo this rather well. The little box at the top left takes you to the front matter at any time, with the option of going to any of the Cycles — a sort of contents list.

Atavist has recently been recipient of an injection of funds Capital New York tells us (via Publishing Executive Insight). Here’s a story from NiemanLab, via Ink, Bits, & Pixels, describing some improvements they are making. We wish them luck and look forward to yet more innovation. I do think that their approach is better than the enhanced e-book route (see this Publishing Perspectives story). I believe a book is a book, and a movie is a movie. If I decide to read the book, I doubt if I’m going to want impulsively to switch over in medias res to a movie clip, or a suggestive photo, or whatever bell or whistle is on offer. We’ll see.

Is it amusing that these born-digital books like The New World and The Silent History are being picked up by traditional publishers for regular print publication? Probably inevitable, and after all why not?

In a favorable review of Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life in the Times Literary Supplement of 27 February 2015, with broad-ranging discussion of the theory of biography, Stuart Kelly comments on the tendency for biographies to bloat, hinting at their wanting to follow the path laid out by Borges for the 1:1 map — a map of the Empire which occupies exactly the same expanse as the Empire. He adds “It would be possible, in our digital age, to create the ultimate form of this kind of biography. Imagine a webpage devoted to, let us say, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Each page would correspond to a day of his life; any contributor could place there known facts about what he did that day, what he wrote that day, either professionally or personally, what others said or wrote about him on that day, and historic events that happened simultaneously. Each contribution could be graded from absolute certainty through degrees of likelihood to best-guess speculation. It ought, really, to extend before birth – date of conception, any traumatic incidents which befell his mother during pregnancy, back to, say, all eight great-grandparents; and should extend as far as the obituaries, his place in subsequent critical discourse, the fates of his offspring, and any references whatsoever to ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, ‘the great unwashed’, or ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, up to the present day. Even if, by some inexplicable listlessness, no one wanted to help wiki-Lytton’s grand undertaking, Franco Moretti could surely unleash some data-mining crawler-bots to scoop up the data undigested and create a workable first pass at the first e-biography. I jest, but only just.”

I almost can’t believe that this isn’t happening already. It sounds way better than Second Life, which just enables you to create a virtual life which you can live while ignoring your actual one. The idea of a biography which would have to take longer to read that it did to live (because obviously it takes longer to read “he leaped out of the window, making sure his tie was straight and his jacket closely buttoned, and fell screaming to the pavement below” than it does to do it) is surely a noble way to subsume your own life to that of your hero. Isn’t this 1:1 biography sort what Karl Ove Knausgård has been accused of doing with his massive Min Kamp? And isn’t it quicker to spend the day striding around Dublin than to read the account of Leopold Bloom doing it in Ulysses?

Maybe we can get this massive on-line biography (MOB) going by incorporating the use of this revolutionary software, Memoirism, introduced to us by McSweeney’s. This software “allows you to create memories that appear up to 99% accurate” while you can comfortably get on with your regular non-autobiographical life. We could just let it rip on a wiki-biography. Or should we expect wiki-biographies to be truthful?

This stuff keeps on coming (I guess, although I am writing this at 8.15 pm on 31 March it’s 1 April somewhere in the world. How disorienting the web becomes.) Here comes a tweet telling us of the publication of the first book, 7R345UR3 15L4ND, written entirely by an algorithm created by Trajectory. But it is datelined Boston so it must be true, mustn’t it?

What we need now is an app which will read all this stuff for us. I don’t mean those apps that will read books to us. We won’t have time to listen! We just need them to read, so we can feel better about getting on with our gaming.


Dedicated to Andy Brown, friend and colleague, alas no longer available to provide content for Mr Kelly’s proposed Bulwer-Lytton site.