NEW BOOK: Back in the Shadows

It’s done. My new book is here. I wrote it back in 2019, but it’s been up and down with a literary agent and publisher for quite a while before I decided to just release it myself. I want it “out there” far more than I want any sort of deal right now, so that will all have to wait, if it happens at all.

But yes, here it is, my new novel, Back in the Shadows.

You might notice that it’s not my name on the top. Well, that’s still me. I’ll write more about this at a later date, but I’ve had some really valuable advice from the above-mentioned literary agent, regarding the reasons people pick pen-names and the sort of name to consider. I took one that ticked many of these boxes, and I’m actually quite happy with it. It’ll separate it from the rest of my previous work, but Drew David is what I’ll be using for new novels.

I had the idea for this story as I started writing Succession of Power, and it’s just stuck with me for some time. In a strange way, it’s ended up being one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written on some level. Again I’m sure I’ll explore that point at a later date.

Anyway, it’s yet another labour of love, so I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can see more at my store here, or if you’d rather dive straight into Amazon, the US site is stocking it, as is the UK site – and most of the others around the world, in both paperback and ebook form.

Enjoy!

Andy

Are eBooks A Rip Off?

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgThere’s been a number of reports over the last two-and-a-half years talking about the slight reduction in ebook sales, and the increase in traditional dead-tree copies. In fact, the paperback market is booming right now, in part due to the increase in the mainstream publishing industry’s dramatically improved production and distribution channels. As I’ve noted before, in the last few years, the likes of Penguin Random House and HarperCollins have invested in these processes by an order of magnitude and are understandably reaping the rewards.

I wrote quite a while ago about how more and more of my own ebook sales were outstripping paper-based sales. This is certainly a movement that’s changed in the last year, with the books I’ve written published by these mainstream titans allowing for more sales and better margins. I wrote that the establishment will do things to slow the move towards ebooks, and maintain their hold on this market. I’ve also written about some of the other reasons why the ebook revolution hasn’t moved as quickly as many had hoped. I think those things are true, but what I didn’t anticipate, was the size and scope of the entrenchment, which has encouraged a return of the traditional paperback for readers in such volume.

Sure, many readers just decided on average, that they prefer paperbacks rather than ebooks. But many – maybe most – really don’t feel this way. However, when there’s comparative price differences between paper or electronic versions of books they want, they might be inclined to by paper. Especially if ebooks prices are over-inflated.

I think this over-inflation continues in part. But also in opposition to that, the way things work at the moment does mean that many authors are not being paid the right amount for their work much of the time.

Let me try to explain with an example, based on 2017 – now I guess 2018 – prices: Imagine there’s a new book out, both in paper form and ebook. We’ll dispense with the hardcover market now so as not to over-confuse things (though this would also work with that market).

Here’s the very basic breakdowns on the paperback version, on sale in the UK for, say £8.99 (which I’ve rounded-up to £9.00 for ease):

9 pound paperback

£9 Paperback Breakdown

As you can see, We’ve got about 40% of the total RRP (Recommended Retail Price) reserved as markup for the retailer. That’s £4.00. Very typical. Many retailers will charge the full amount (after all, they’re taken the risk in buying a lot of stock, etc., and often the deal means they can’t sell all of it back if it doesn’t sell). But many larger chains and online retailers (hello Amazon) can cut into that markup and sell it for less. So a £9.00 book with a high street retailer making £4.00 is sold on Amazon for, say, £6.00 with Amazon making just £1.00, but happy to do so because they sell so many.

The cost of manufacture and distribution for the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster’s of this world has never been proportionally lower. They’ve made big investments and it’s paying off. That’s why the cost of physically making each book (allowing for scale) and distribution is just £1.00.

That leaves £4.00 for the publisher. The author will get a bit of that, as will the typesetter, cover designer, etc. That’s essentially the “intellectual cost” of the book. Remember that £4.00, it’ll be important later in this article.

Now let’s look at that same book going on – for example – Amazon on the Kindle platform. It’s the same book, but in eBook form. And you can get it for £4.99 (again I’m saying £5.00 for simplicity’s sake):

5 pound ebook

Typical £5 eBook Breakdown

As you can see, the breakdowns are different. But that’s fine, they should be for the most part. The retailer is handling most of the actual “distribution”. But that’s a tiny cost (don’t let the technical illiterates in the publishing business tell you otherwise), so I’ve been very generous with the 20p cost there. Though I haven’t written it this way, there’s an argument that the 20p cost is mostly for the retailer rather than the publisher, which is fine.

Speaking of the retailer, they don’t have a big risk any more. If the book sells one copy or a million, they just need an electronic copy on a server (or probably several to be safe) and can distribute that as needed. There’s no advantage to economy of scale, but no disadvantage to low sales either. The book-selling business in the ebook world is a low-risk game. So their markup is significantly lower to reflect that. I think that’s fair.

Where there’s a slight problem, is the revenue for the publisher in this model. Just £3.30. Now, there’s lower costs here which is fair. The retailer doesn’t have to make as big a risk on producing thousands of physical copies of a book that might not sell. And they don’t have to pay lots of money for a typesetter either. But they still spend time and money investing in the author. They’re still the big promoters and backers of talent. In the future, I hope that they stay as a significant force in this area. They’re brilliant at it, and I speak from experience. And they still have to pay for someone to design and produce the actual ebook file. Where a typesetter will work full-time for two weeks to finish a typical book (burning the candle at both ends), a finished and edited manuscript can be made into a perfect and standards-compliant ebook format in a couple of days easily. Hell, even I could do it to a decent standard in one afternoon with some of the software out there.

And of course, the author needs to get paid. Sadly, in the current system, the author is the tiny bit of that £4.00 that gets squeezed the most when it goes down to £3.30.

A publisher doesn’t need to make £4.00 from an ebook. But under the current way of doing things, an author often gets financially penalised when someone buys an ebook over a print edition because of the overall lower revenue per-sale that goes back to the publisher.

The quickest, and – based on where the industry is now – the most practical current solution would be to charge a little bit more for ebooks. The sales are what they are, and may not be affected too much (but I understand how the economic theory of ‘dynamic scoring’ could lay waste to this idea, which I readily admit), but this example breakdown could work better in the short-term. Imagine if instead the ebook sold for just a  tiny bit more; £5.70:

5.70 ebook

Example of a Typical £5.70 eBook Breakdown

Now things are a tiny bit different. The manufacture/distribution cost is unchanged. Because the overall price is higher, the percentage markup for the retailer is a bit higher. But the publisher (and therefore the author and everyone else) is left with almost the same as they would have with the £9.00 paperback book.

£3.80 is less than £4.00, yes. But not by much. And that 20p drop is just to account for now having to pay a typesetter as much, and an ebook designer for two days over that two-week typesetting job, and of course not having the risky investment of mass-producing a physical book, which is the big cost. This price would, arguably, disproportionally reward the publisher themselves, but at least it means the author would get what’s owed to her in full.

The best example that I can come up with to highlight the problem right now: Imagine you hire an accountant to do an audit of your finances. They spend a couple of days going over your accounts. Your income, expenditure, savings and investments, Then they publish an almost scholarly-assessment, where they write up with graphs and detailed references, what extra savings they think you should be making, what investments you should consider, and what expenditure you could do without.

Imagine then that they printed that 10-page report out, and put it in an envelope, bunged a stamp on it and mailed it to you with an invoice for the work they’ve done: let’s say it was £300.

Question: If they emailed the report and invoice to you instead, would you expect them to have only charged £230?

Sure, maybe taking the cost of the stamp, the envelope, the ten pages and the ink together, they could have only charged £299 for the emailed copy. But anything less than that, and they’re basically being paid less for the same. Is that fair?

Anyway, that’s my view, and I’m sure even I probably disagree with the oversimplification in this article. Besides, I love, dear reader, you regardless of which format you buy my books – and they’re available in both ebook and paperback form right here!

In An Age Where Facts Matter, Keep Writing Fiction

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The biggest new phrases in our lexicon are things like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. It’s easy to say that old adage “you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts”, but it’s a perspective currently lost in the world of news and politics.

Many say – and understandably – that we need to grasp facts now more than ever before. They matter more than they have ever done. Now is not a time of escapism, of hiding from reality by delving into a fictitious world.

I respectfully disagree.

We need fiction now more than ever. We need stories more than ever. Because they’re often the best way of seeing the real truth.

I still can’t quite figure out why the book I wrote last year – Succession of Power – is selling so well. I’m sorry, that sounds like a very arrogant thing to say. I hope you understand that I’m just genuinely curious as to why a book with easily the lowest-key launch of anything I’ve ever written has done such good “business”.

A friend who read it said that she enjoyed that it features a woman president. Someone who was strong enough to stand up for herself when the forces of darkness rise over her. She said she felt that this was a reference to Hillary Clinton – the president that “should have been” (in her eyes) – taking control when all around is out of control.

I certainly don’t think the character Mary Rosalind is the same as Hillary Clinton. It’s pretty clear that Clinton wanted the presidency for most of her life, and spent all of her time trying to achieve that goal. It’s a perfectly respectable aim, but it was never the goal of Rosalind. Mary was quite happy in the position she was given, just a little frustrated that her brilliant achievements weren’t acknowledged.

But I see what my friend means. A lot of people look at the big political decisions of the past year, and are depressed. I’m personally not depressed about the politics of 2016 (or at least, not any more than any other year), and I don’t think that’s just my natural optimistic comportment. There’s a lot of things to be objectively happy about if you’re lucky enough to live in the West today. Arguably we’ve never had it better. Who cares who resides in the White House? And when it’s someone awful, then let’s take the positives out of that: it means more people are concentrating on the nuances of the Constitution than they’ve done before. That’s actually quite refreshing, if you’re more libertarian-minded. Welcome back to the fold, anti-war, anti-government overreach protestors. Where have you been for the last eight years?

And here’s the funny thing about writing fiction. Though the stories can be larger than life, they only really resonate when they speak a truth. When they tell us something about human nature.

That’s all Succession of Power has tried to do. In the middle of a crisis, a president – and a small band of allies – do all they can to stand strong for the moral principles of a republic, when everyone around is losing their heads. It’s about how not doing something is often more noble and brave than doing something.

But heck, if you’re just looking for a story where there’s a woman president who knows what the hell she’s doing, despite being surrounded by stupid, solipsistic men, then I hope you enjoy the book. And it’s available for less than a few bucks on Amazon right now.

Don’t Make Notes: Just Write

typing-keyboard-writingIt’s the age-old cliché. A writer with a notepad. Maybe a pencil tucked behind the ear. After all, a writer always needs to jot down ideas as he or she gets them, right?

I’m pretty sure that the only reason I have five published books under my belt is because I’ve spent very little time procrastinating. I don’t have time to write books. I have a crazy busy job. But I’ve written them anyway. I’ve just got on with it. Some authors write thousands upon thousands of words in the form of ideas and preparation notes before actually doing the real book. Me, I do very little preparation. Some, but not a lot. Just enough to convince myself that “I’ve got a book here”, then I sit down at my desktop or laptop computer and type “Chapter 1” (or, more appropriately “#001”, as I write in markdown, which I strongly recommend to all). Then I’m away.

Don’t misunderstand me: many authors say they must do all this “epic planning” for a good reason. There are some truly talented bestselling authors out there who have to write the whole book (in terms of word count) before they start actually writing it. Slightly unrelated, but one of my literary heroes, the late Elmore Leonard, said he wrote about three pages for every finished page you saw. Yes, there are clear exceptions, but I can’t help feel that many use “planning” as a crutch.

Many writers working on their first book write lots of notes. Whenever “inspiration strikes”, they’ll jot down what comes into their heads. Are you doing that? Are you doing it to avoid actually writing the book?

If you do write down every idea as a note, why? Before you write “Chapter 1”, you’ll have to sift through all those notes, and work out how they pertain to the overall idea you had. That’s real work. When you’re at the delicate creative stage, suddenly you’re finding yourself doing paperwork. Ugh.

I’m not so sure about this approach. Every idea you have isn’t some sort of amazing insight that needs to be logged. And as I said in the previous paragraph, jotting down and cataloguing every little idea just means more work later on, pouring over crap. But – some will say – what if one of these ideas is an amazing insight? Why risk forgetting it? Even if it means noting down lots of bad stuff too?

It’s a good question. But I think it’s a debatable point. My memory is terrible, but I’ve learnt one thing that applies all the time: if you come up with a great idea, it’ll stick with you. It’ll keep coming back. It won’t leave you the hell alone. It’ll insist on your attention. It’ll stop you sleeping. It’s a pain in the backside, until you finally do something about it. Trust your instincts. Trust your subconscious. It’ll let you know when an idea is worth your attention. Your good ideas have an ability to keep fighting over the bad ones.

So my advice – which might be wholly useless to you – is don’t keep a notepad around. Or a notes-taking app on your phone or whatever. Notepads are a repository for bad ideas. The good ones stay rattling in your head until they drive you nuts. Let your subconscious sort out the good from the bad for you.

Besides, you don’t have the time to worry about that stuff consciously. You’ve got a book to write.

Coming Soon: Succession of Power

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Just wanted to give you the heads-up about a brand new book that I’ve written that’ll make its way to a book store (online and brick-based) near you soon.

Succession of Power.

You will be able to buy it for Amazon Kindle, on the iBooks Store and for the Nook, as well as the good ol’ dead tree version. All at pretty competitive prices. I’ll post up more information on that as soon as it’s available.

If you like your thrillers to pack a real punch, then I definitely think you’re going to enjoy Succession of Power.

It’s a political action thriller set in Washington D.C. on the day of the president’s State of the Union speech.

Here’s the blurb:

A bomb detonates inside Capitol Hill during the president‘s State of the Union speech, bringing America to its knees.

Left behind to lead the country under the presidential ‘Succession of Power’ laws is an inexperienced junior cabinet member, aided by the only Secret Service agent who foresaw the horrific act.

Together, they must calm a shaken nation and bring the terrorists to justice before they strike again, while fighting even more sinister forces at the very heart of government.

It’s been a heck of a ride putting this book together, and I really can’t wait for you to read it.

I started writing it during the last week of February this year, and finished it in the last week of August, so it’s been a six-month project, though being swamped at work has stopped me being able to finish it quite a bit sooner.

I had the idea in September last year. I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be the one member of the president’s cabinet who has to stay behind when the president goes to Capitol Hill to deliver the SOTU. They need someone stay behind in case something terrible happens on the Hill, so that someone in the presidential succession line can take over right away (hence the title).

I really wanted to write a page-turner. It’ll be for you to judge if I’ve succeeded. But one thing that did happen, is the last 45% of the story was written in about the last month. It just came out of me, at 100 miles-an-hour. I was writing it fast, and I hope you read it just as fast. It’s a fun, exciting, pacy high-concept story that hopefully fits in well with the expectations of the genre.

I’ve got a lot of cool stuff in the pipeline, but you’ll excuse me for taking a week or so off before I get back on it again!

I hope this ends up being as fun to read as it was to write. Stay tuned, I’ll have more once it goes live. And of course, it’ll be available on the store here too.

An Objectivist Christmas Carol

  One of my odd holiday season traditions is to re-read Charles Dickens’ festive classic, “A Christmas Carol”.

After today’s re-run of this tradition, I felt – as I often do – that it’s not quite the appeal to a religious/social democratic way of life it’s often portrayed. Is there something of the libertarian – if not Objectivist in Ebinezer Scrooge by the end of the story?

Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had the same thoughts. Here’s a comprehensive look at this idea from the very thoughtful Robert Davidson on the Rebirth of Reason site.

Davidson makes some thought-provoking points, this one really caught my eye:

Dickens argues here for an integrated rational, full-faceted individual who is as comfortable in the counting house as he is with spiritual values and the fulfillment and happiness they provide. The spirit of Christmas is a metaphor for the integrated life. Dickens describes Christmas as “the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” 

Whenever I think of that powerful scene, when pre-transformed Scrooge asks the two gentlemen soliciting charity for the needy, he asks “Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?…I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

Is that really the attitude of an Objectivist? Or is it more someone who relies on the state, to perform the functions of charity and forbearance? If you want a large state to redistribute wealth, look after the poor, and support us from cradle to grave, then you’ll be the sort of person who wants taxes to provide those services; those institutions. It would be someone who believes in self-reliance and thinks that charity should be precisely that: charity, then you can’t support Scrooge’s sentiment.

Anyway, I’m jotting this out of my phone on Christmas Eve night, so maybe I’m not thinking it through.

Either way, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, happy holidays.

Rewriting Ayn Rand

AtlasDo you have a novel that you have read time and time again? A story that – despite there being so many stories in the world to discover – you keep coming back to? Which one is it for you? What’s your dark, literary secret?

For me, it’s Ayn Rand’s half-a-million word magnum opus Atlas Shrugged.

I’m re-reading it now, for the… actually, I have no idea how many times I’ve worked my way through those 1,184 pages, but it’s got to be my fifth outing at least. This time, and the last time I read it, I’ve used my Kindle, which at least keeps the weight of the book down.

I read Atlas Shrugged every 2-3 years. And in many ways, it’s a terrible novel.

Lacking in creativity, realism (but Rand herself acknowledged that it was a romantic novel where realism wasn’t the goal), pace, brevity and rounded characters, it’s almost an exercise in how not to write a novel. But still, something about it makes me keep coming back.

That something is its didactic message. It’s an honest novel. It speaks the truth about how the world works, and how morality, and reason matter.

The fact that Rand bashes us over the head with the same 2/3 lessons and scenarios time and time again, is simply because that very honest, truthful and moral dilemma is at the heart of many of the worlds problems. And generally, art doesn’t discuss it. That’s why we need to bashed over our heads time and time again.

Rand was heartbroken when it wasn’t a well-received novel. One critic compared the message of the book to the Nazi concentration camps. When of course, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a promotion of quite the opposite.

Because this novel speaks a raw truth to me, I find myself coming back to it, over and over. It’s like in a world where the benefits of reason are ignored, where the reality of human nature is discarded or distorted, I turn to this book as a top-up of morality.

So despite it being the one novel I can read over and over, I can’t help feel the language of Objectivism as well as the style of the book are what’s kept it from full-blown mainstream attention.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a phenomenally successful book, that’s had more reprints than you and I have had proverbial hot dinners. But the ultimate moral message – despite it chiming with the way rational beings live their lives – has not shined through.

I think I might know why.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, Atlas Shrugged is long. Way long. Half-a-million words is more than five times longer than the average book. That, on a practical level, puts people off. The inflexible use of language and the equally inflexible repetition may also do the message a disservice.

The fundamental idea – that some mysterious man is taking away the great producers of the world – is a fun mystery, that could – and should – play out like a pacy thriller. But there’s no pace here. Add to that the way that Rand lays down the same (in my opinion valid) argument over and over, on page after page doesn’t help either. But it’s the language employed that really makes it hard.

And that’s the problem with Objectivism generally. If you wish to take words that are used by people a certain way, and use them in another, then you’re simply not communicating effectively. Even if your use of the words are more accurate. Simply stating that it’s moral and good to be selfish, does not help persuade people to your line of thinking, if they associate selfishness with immoral behaviour. But it’s not necessarily an argument between one person saying “A is good” and another saying “A is bad”. It’s actually that they both agree “A is good”, but what the first calls “A”, the other calls “B”.

I know that’s a very difficult paragraph to read. But Objectivism is a philosophy, and nailing down a philosophy in a succinct way is – as Rand has demonstrated over countless pages – difficult to read sometimes.

Let’s take that example of “selfishness”. To most people, they’d describe the act of breaking into a car and stealing it as “selfish”. So when Rand describes the Virtue of Selfishness, to them, they think she’s practically saying it’s a virtue to steal a car, or do one of a million things they’d consider selfish.

But Rand isn’t saying that. She’s saying that being selfish is to be motivated by – and living for – your rational self interest. Yes, strictly speaking, this could be defined as “selfish”, but most people wouldn’t consider it to be so. And that’s the problem, her inflexible language – and the language of so many who consider themselves to be Objectivists – stops them from having a normal conversation.

Let me be clear. I consider myself an Objectivist. I happen to think that Rand herself wasn’t the best example of an Objectivist in the world (but maybe that’s for another blog post), but more importantly, I think that it’s worth using better language to describe that philosophy, language that communicates with clarity what Objectivists believe. To do so would – in my opinion – make the message both more acceptable and understandable to many more people. For example, the occasional moral musings of entertainer Penn Jillette, or any given Objectivist discussion by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, do more – in my opinion – to promote the philosophy of Objectivism than Ayn Rand’s entire life work. They are more productive than she is in this regard, which is quite ironic.

We need more Objectivist thinking in the world. It’d be a better world for it. I just sometimes wish it’d been explained better in the first place, and not recited by self-described Objectivists today, who seem to be keen to do an Ayn Rand impression (and defend her personal life and every quote, etc) than actually persuade more people to embrace the ideas.

If only Thomas “The Pursuit of Happiness” Jefferson was still around, I think he’d translate the philosophy of Objectivism in a far greater way than Rand was able to.

The Rise, Fall and Eventual Rise Again of eBooks

ebookIt was only about five years ago that the world – and me – decided that print books were going the way of vinyl records. In the mid 2000s, the technology that make e-ink screens possible was finally viable for mass production.

Soon after, Amazon released the Kindle, and ebooks went mainstream. Between 2008 and 2011, ebook sales rose 1,260 percent in the US alone. Game over. Independent bookshops, chains and printers stood in fear, waiting for the final death call.

But it never came. It was a close-run thing. Sales were skyrocketing, and in the US, the collapse of bookstore Borders (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) seemed to signal the very end.

Then the numbers went the other way. Since then, paper-based books have slowly moved back into the mainstream. By this year – 2015 – people like me said ebooks would overtake sales of print. But it didn’t happen. There was something of a plot twist to this story, that I never saw coming. Book stores – including those independent chains – are stronger and more vibrant today than any time before 2010. The American Booksellers Association says they’ve got 1,712 members stores today, compared to 1,660 in 2010. Today, ebooks occupy about 20 percent of the market. That’s about the same market share in 2012. What happened?

I’ve heard a lot of publishers (and authors who have bought this line too) say it’s simply because readers prefer “real” books. And so digital is at 20 percent, and will stay at 20 percent. The market has spoken. I don’t quite buy this. I think there were two reasons why ebooks sales have slumped: one short(er)-term reason to do with a temporary technology disruption from another market, and a longer-term reason to do with corporatism on behalf of the big traditional book-publishing industry.

Let’s look at the first of those. The first mainstream ebook reader in the US, the Amazon Kindle, cost hundreds of dollars when it was first released in the American market. But it sold well. As is pretty much always the case with technology, the prices quickly went down and the features improved. But it’s just an e-ink screen right? So the improvements were incremental. The real push is to lower the cost. Today in the UK, the basic Kindle, (which is much better than the first generation model ever was), will set you back just £59. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a heck of a drop compared to the first model released in 2008. Most ebooks were usually cheaper than their hardback versions, and paperback editions too. Makes sense really. I mean, there’s not a lot of cost involved in the mass-distrubtion of a file that’s typically only a couple of megabytes big, compared to the printing and distribution of a paper-based product. Amazon made big gains with its cheap $9.99 price guarantee for bestsellers (which, because publishers didn’t have the big costs associated with mass printing and distribution, meant that they also actually made more money from the sales of the cheaper ebook versions).

Then a bit of marketplace disruption occurred. In 2010, Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s iPad. “The Kindle’s been great,” he told the enthralled audience at the keynote speech, revealing the tablet to the world for the first time, “but now we’re gonna take it further.” Stephen Fry upon recording his first impressions of the iPad, couldn’t help but write “…poor Kindle.” Tablets had been around for decades, but the iPad was the first tablet computer that captured the imagination of the mainstream. It was a big success, and dozens of rival manufactures brought out their own tablets (including Amazon, with their Kindle Fire range).

Suddenly, in 2010, millions of customers faced a choice. Buy a Kindle (or other e-reader) for, say, $250, or an iPad for $399. Yeah, the iPad is more expensive, but it can do a lot more an a e-reader, which is after all, a uni-tasking device. And the iPad can read books too. Jobs gave a demo of iBooks, and even Amazon produced a Kindle app, so you could read your purchases on the device. Most people, at the time, weren’t going to buy both devices given the prices, so they bought one. And that was the iPad they bought. Or, other, often cheaper Android/Microsoft-based rivals.

But there’s a problem. Reading a book on a bright computer screen – like an iPad – is not the same as reading it on an e-ink screen. The e-ink screen looks like, well, a page. Just printed text on paper. A regular screen is like staring at your laptop. After a while, holding a bigger, heavier, glaring screen to read a text-based book (like a novel or biography) just put people off. So they stopped buying ebooks, and, rather than buying an ebook reader, moved back to paper-based medium. Once bitten, twice shy.

I think this is a short-term issue. But, judging by how slowly the book industry moves, short-term might be 15-25 years. Based on current pricing, I think that the business model of the Kindle could end up being that Amazon will release it for free (“get a free e-ink Kindle for every 5 ebooks you buy!”). So people can have loads of them, all over the house. If you drop one or leave it on the bus, no matter. You can get another for next-to-nothing, and remote-wipe the one you’ve lost/damaged. This ‘free’ ubiquitous attitude will slowly bring people back to ebooks. The rise of people – some of which are very talented – self-publishing on the Kindle Digital Platform, through Barnes & Noble’s platform, Google, or iBooks through iTunes Producer, can also play a part as we see more and more cheap and readily available work. Think about it, the beauty of this, is even if you’re a first-time self-published author, the fact that you’re able to sell as many books (with no upfront risk or cost) as John Grisham is a really exciting and revolutionary thing. Getting it noticed by the public, especially with lots of people releasing utter garbage remains a challenge.

The second problem I see is a trickier one, that could stop things moving forward for a century or more. This is corporatism on the part of the major book publishers. Once the ebook reader arrived, they could see that with nimble, smart, savvy new writers (think E.L. James et al), soon, publishing a book just by yourself could become the “done” thing, even for well-established writers. If Stephen King publishes a book as a hardcover for $19.99, he could see $3 of it. If he were to publish it himself (paying for an editor, cover designer, etc. himself), he could sell it for, say $5, and still make the same $3 off every sale, regardless of how many copies sell, with no risk of doing an overly-ambitious print-run. And at that price, he’d shift many more books.

The big book publishers saw this as a scary future, one to be avoided if possible. Amazon’s $9.99 Kindle bestsellers deal in the US is over, and the publishers are in charge again now. And they’re charging much more for their ebooks than they were a few years ago, (making them less competitive and attractive to readers) while also doing all they can to lower the price of print-book production through innovations and economies of scale. Hachette boosted their Indiana warehouse by 218,000 square feet last year. Penguin Random House have coughed up $100 million to expand and update its wearhorse operations, with 365,000 square feet added in 2014 to its (already huge) warehouse in Crawfordsville Indiana, doubling its size. The boys and girls at Simon & Schuster are set to do the same to their distribution facility in New Jersey: it’s going to be 200,000 square feet larger.

Why the big investment? Because they can put a stranglehold on this business. At the moment, if people mostly buy print books, then big publishers will remain in charge as the gatekeepers, getting their percentage for every copy sold. Because of these expansions and distribution improvements, it’s now often cheaper to buy a paperback version of a book than the ebook version.

I hope this doesn’t last, but I’m not optimistic. I really like publishers, especially the one’s I’ve mentioned above. But I don’t like what they’re doing here. I envisaged a future for big publishers as representing new talent (and established talent), using their incredible editorial, marketing and promotional skills to be champions of quality. Just because “anyone” can self-publish wouldn’t mean they should. There would be a big market – a demand – for publishers who burrow and forage, looking for the best talent out there, and bringing it to our attention. Yes, the margins could be lower for publishers on a per-book basis, but not having to guess what sort of a print-run etc. they have to do would mean the risk is lower too. And they could invest more time not in building ever-bigger factories, but in nurturing more and more talent.

They’d be so important in this brave future. But I fear (and hope I’m wrong) that they could keep things the way they are for the next century and more, before the number of talented self-published writers tilt the playing-field.

 

But don’t forget, you can buy all of my books – both in print and digitally – here! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the chance to cheapen this article with a plug!)

Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

Emma Donogue’s Room – A Gimmick That Works

Room CoverRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador, £8.99)

The problem for books with a gimmick is that the novelty can wear off after a few pages.

But Emma Donoghue’s “Room” – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 – manages to overcome this impediment, leaving you engrossed until the end.

The ‘gimmick’ is that it’s written from the perspective of Jack, as he turns five. Two paragraphs in, and it’s clear that not all is right with Jack’s world. He lives in a single room with his mother, and appears never to have been outside or seen anything beyond those four walls. But why? What happened?

The poor syntax of Jack’s speech takes a page or so to get used to, but adds to the believability of the story. There’s a conspicuous absence of definite articles in our narrators vocabulary at first (for example: the room is just “room” to him, and the lamp is just “lamp”), which slowly and subtly improves as we sense him growing up and learning more about the world outside of ‘room’.

Donoghue has a knack for getting inside the mind of a child: not in a trite or clichéd way, but with a style that’s believable and gripping. And the author is smart enough to give us the exposition we need to follow the story, without dispensing that important data in an unrealistic or clunky way: “When I was a little kid, I thought like a little kid,” Jack says. “But now that I’m five I know everything.”

Yes, it’s a gimmick, writing from that perspective. And it should grow tiresome, but somehow never does. Without “breaking character” or taking any serious liberties with the form, Donoghue manages to keep her reader – like the two main characters – confined into a story that remains eerily believable.