Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Would you pay for a book that Pat Kane and Terry Jones haven't written yet?

A couple of weeks or so ago I noticed a strange post on Pat Kane's Facebook page. Kane is a musician, writer, journalist, consultant and activist. Despite being utterly in the thrall of the SNP he's often worth listening to on media matters, which is why I befriended him on FB.
But the post in question really made me wonder.
Just to fill you in, Kane had a successful recording career with his band Hue and Cry. He's often in the public eye as a media and cultural critic and still plays live. He happens to live not so far away from me in Glasgow's West End and he is very interested and involved in social media.
Which is all fine and interesting. And my point, I guess, is that he's not starving in a garret somewhere.
Pat's latest project, some might say wheeze - and he 'launched' it in the traditional old fashioned papery Guardian - was to announce that he intends to write a book, Radical Animal, which would have an online social network element, and that he was looking for $10,000 (or £6K approx) to give him the time to write the MS.
Instead of getting a publisher to pay him an advance, he is offering the general public the chance to stump up for him instead. So if you are interested in reading Pat's as yet unwritten book, you could sponsor him to write it.
How many people out there, I asked myself, are so eager to hear Pat Kane's thoughts on a subject, any subject: eager enough to pay in advance for a man who tweets and appears regularly on traditional media outlets effectively for free?
Then the other day I saw a Tweet with a link to unbound.co.uk. This is another example of the net being used to democratise the book production process. This from their website: "What's different is that instead of waiting for them to publish their work, Unbound allows you to listen to their ideas for what they'd like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing..."
So Kane's pay up front idea is wider than just him (and I am sure there are other examples probably in the US: links welcome).
There is clearly something attractive about democratising publishing. Its appealing to think that we'll get the books we want if we remove these elitist publishers with their mad ideas about thrillers selling hundreds of thousands of copies and no one being interested in the poignant memoir of a 26-year-old former drama student who once did drugs at a party.
I don't think it's true, of course. Publishers bring more to the party than just a fancy cover and shelf space in Tesco, as important as those two elements are. But I can see why some people might get excited over the idea.
What puzzles me is how anyone thinks this pay-up-front model is at all viable. We live in a book economy in which publishers struggle to sell new paperbacks at half price through the megaonline marketplace of Amazon. Waterstones has just been sold to a Russian billionaire. Borders is gone. One key factor in their demise is over supply: too many books, depressed prices, consumers who want to spend less and less.
Then there is self-publishing. You can put your MS straight out into the marketplace on Kindle etc without a publisher getting involved. You reap the rewards yourself. But you don't get paid up front and the per unit price is necessarily low.
My question is: just who thinks there are enough readers out there with enough time and money to speculate on books - fiction, non fiction - which haven't been written yet?
A glance at the Unbound website tells me that each of their current offerings has a long way to go before they get funded. In fact, the best of them - a short story collection by Python legend Terry Jones - is 98 per cent short of its target, albeit with 48 days to go.
I wish Pat Kane good luck, I'll sit and watch the result with interest. Similarly with Unbound. But I don't see either of these schemes coming off. Not in any meaningful, sustainable way.
What do you think?

Friday, 27 May 2011

Hay Festival 2011 pictures highlights: Friday 27 May - Telegraph

So why am I not at Hay?
I'd love to be, but it's a bit far from Glasgow just to listen to authors. Authors are thick on the ground. We've had Aye Write, we are looking forward to Edinburgh. Hay must be lovely: it's the Hampstead book fest in the countryside. A chance for Radio Four to sit in prefabs and under tents and for their presenters to interview each other.
Book fests are fun. But they are also about publishing rather than reading. I'm a great believer in publishing: well that would be obvious. But it can also feel a little daunting to be told there are 40 new books out today, and that everyone is a must read.
Most of them most certainly are not.
But book fests stir the blood. They are meeting places. Debating chambers. A chance to browse a different sort of shelf and to talk and hear about books you might never have thought of. They are a great excuse to talk about books, and that is a good thing. A great thing.
As I say, I kinda wish I was at Hay...

Hay Festival 2011 pictures highlights: Friday 27 May - Telegraph

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Hitch, digested. Vanity Fair's provocateur in chief Christopher Hitchens' memoir Hitch 22

It was, in retrospect, inevitable that a book written by one Christopher Hitchens, he of the passionately left wing opinions and the throat cancer, not to mention the fine Washington apartment, and a favourite of the sort of dinner party favoured by the highest of American political circles, should, when all is said and done, generate such a variety of opinion. Not just in the sense of who liked it and who did not but also in terms of who finished it and who did not and who liked what part of it, while not liking another part. Hitch 22 is, if it is nothing else, a memoir that stirs up emotions and sets the mind racing. It also managed the remarkable feat of simultaneously convincing me that I should have taken up smoking in my younger years, while confirming that my stance as a lifelong non-smoker was absolutely the correct one.

Inhale deeply, swallow a mouthful of Shiraz, and start writing in normal voice.

Loved it. Completely loved it. And Hitch, should you happen to read this on your Google alerts - I wonder if you do - I'm heading out right now to buy up your other books because at 42 I'm too old not to have read them.

For what it is worth, our little group loved the personal stuff. The recollections and revelations relating to your mother and father, the account of life at school, your years at university and those first precocious stumblings in the world of journalism. It all seemed so long ago. Cricket on the lawn. Sending off in the mail for a pamphlet on the Jewish Question. Smoking both in the office and in a restaurant.

You could sense the energy you all had - you and Amis, Fenton and the others. How I wish I'd seen Clive James' play, what was it about? Prince Charles, wasn't it? It sounded really terrible. As for Salman's wordplay, actually that divided us. What was it? Ludlum writes Shakespeare or some such Eng Lit snobbery? Shame on you all, but it raised a few laughs just the same.

We wondered: what gave you the confidence? Was it from within you, or was it that privileged education, your mother's aspirations; or simply the place and the time? Was it the whisky?

The last third of the book, of course, is you settling some arguments. Perhaps some old scores too. At times it baffled, but generally it entertained and informed. We all reached for our laptops to Google the names you threw at us. People you knew and debated with, who to us are footnotes in history, littered every page. We're re-assessing that now, adjusting our world view, realising how little we have kept up. Glad that people like you are out there to join up the dots so we can see what the result is.

It's a brilliant book. And we all hope there will be a part II. Best of luck.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Richard Mason's debut The Drowning People... pre History of a Pleasure Seeker

I met Richard Mason in 2009, in a coffee shop in my home town, Glasgow, where he was living at the time. He'd just published his third book The Lighted Rooms (published as Natural Elements in the US and elsewhere), which is an enjoyable, thoughtful novel about growing old and growing up, and I was interviewing him. He was great company, a bundle of positive energy and extremely passionate about writing.
The Lighted Rooms is one of the few novels that looks clearly at the world of the fund manager and high finance. I enjoyed it - perhaps more so looking back on it than I thought I had at the time.
I caught up with Mason's 2001 debut, the multi million selling The Drowning People this month - it has just been reissued in the UK in a tenth anniversary edition complete with book club notes at the back.
Now the thing about Mason's debut is that when it was first published people focused on the size of the advance more than anything else.
Mason became a millionaire thanks to The Drowning People, which has sold by the bucket load - in particular in Germany, for some reason, but also round the world. And one of the reasons I like him is that he took that early good fortune and set up an educational trust for kids in South Africa to attend that country's most elite schools. It's a tremendous achievement in itself.
As to the book, Mason says The Drowning People was his attempt to tell the story of a man's life backwards. The protagonist is 83 (or so) and we meet him just after he has murdered his wife by blowing her brains out. He has then made it look as if she has committed suicide. The question is of course why, and that is what the book is about.
It's a great device. Actually it falls short of being his whole life and it is no surprise that Mason, who was in his teens and early twenties when he was working on this book, has actually written a novel about someone that age, but told through the filter of his older self. If you follow. The action of the book is entirely focused on the man's early years and his unhappy love affair with Ella Harcourt, his late wife's cousin and I felt it read like a young man's book in emotion and perspective.
It's also gloriously intriguing and the capturing of time and place - upper crust England pre WW2 - is well done. There are moments - I noticed them more from half way through - when I thought the dialogue slipped a little. I found myself tutting at some of the expressions which sounded like old fashioned English movies rather than real people. (The Lighted Rooms has no such issues.)
As for The Drowning People's big reveals: I have to be honest here, neither of them sustains great scrutiny. But in the pace and verve of the novel they work nicely and I really enjoyed them. Even though I'd pretty much guessed it from the outset and most readers I think would.
Despite the backward element, the book reads like an old fashioned whodunnit. I could imagine Christie or Sayers coming up with a similar plot. What I find interesting as a writer is that Mason hasn't gone on to write any other books that could be considered crime or as a whodunnit. He is clearly someone who considers himself a novelist rather than a genre writer - I gathered that from my interview with him. But actually, I hope he revives his interest in murder and intrigue in the future as he paces the plot well.
Mason has just published his latest novel, History Of A Pleasure Seeker, in the UK, set in Amsterdam during the Belle Epoque period. I'm not actually sure when exactly that is, but I'm glad to see that it's receiving warm reviews. The Guardian even goes so far to suggest that Richard Mason is finally living up to the early hype.

For more information about Richard Mason, take a look at his website www.richard-mason.org

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Gary Shteyngart's webisode....forget Seinfeld, this guy's real good

There are many reasons to be jealous of Gary Shteyngart, the author of Super Sad True Love Story. There's his looks. His dashchund. the fact he has written some great books. And then there is the fact he gets Paul Giametti to star in an internet video ad for his paperback.

Do truckers prefer the paper or ebook version?

It's a crowded market, folks. You gotta come up with an angle. I love what this Canadian author has done regarding her own novel. No idea if it's a good read or not. I don't think it is even published over here. But it's an interesting approach to flogging it.


Do you judge a book by its cover? You betcha...

There's a cute post on the US book blog Omnivoracoius that caught my eye. It features a series of book jackets and the alternative covers that were considered but ultimately rejected. I'm not sure who in the publishing house decided to open this particular vault of goodies, but whoever it was did us all a great favour. What it shows is just how random and weird a lot of what goes in to deciding on the ideal cover is. I particularly love the Michael Chabon alternative. Totally wacko.But would I have bought the book? Nope, not on your life.

We judge books by the covers all the time. That's why we got adult versions of JK Rowling. (When I first heard about them I had to leaf through one in a shop to make sure there weren't added swear words or sex scenes.) Indeed covers are part of what makes a book desirable, which is why the saying, don't judge a book by its cover is so ironic. So false.

I don't have a favourite cover as such, but the one photographed above is certainly one that has caught the eye recently. The book is an inside story of the Scott expedition by one of the survivors. Try to figure out what or who made the tracks in the snow. Bet you don't guess.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A New Book List: Have you got any Wimsey?

A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery

I've had another wave of book lists in - following the idea being picked up by the Big Issue.
But it's not enough. I want more.
The ones I have seen are really interesting and have left me feeling justified for launching the idea in the first place.
There are, quite simply, a lot of books out there. And there are a lot of people. Not sure what you get if you divide one number by the other, or what it would mean. But even my relatively small example illustrates just how redundant any idea of a literary canon is.
The 'BBC' book list was so safe, you wondered if it was compiled by readers or by people who once walked past a bookshop. This new list is going to be very different.
For instance, this came in just the other day from a woman called Pat, via Facebook (and many thanks to her for taking the time):

Diana Gabaldon - Cross Stitch (US- Outlander)
Baroness Orczy - Scarlet Pimpernel
Dorothy L Sayers - Gaudy Night
Nicholas Evans - The Smoke Jumper
Richard Bach - The Bridge Across Forever

I had to look twice at this sadly quite short list because, I have to be honest, to my shame, I haven't read one of these novels. Indeed, with the exception of Nicholas Evans' highly entertaining debut, The Horse Whisperer, I haven't read any of these authors.
This really cheered me, because essentially, isn't that what what a book list should be about? Call it, the shock of the new and overlooked. It should be about people arguing passionately for work that even other bibliophiles haven't come across yet.
I'm not sure what shape the list will take. And please take the time to share the idea with your friends so we can get more lists in. But whatever the end product will be, it won't be dull.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Patrick DeWitt and the Sisters Brothers ride for the first time

I interviewed Patrick DeWitt last week, an Oregon based Canadian whose second novel The Sisters Brothers is out in the UK as a Granta paperback this month.

It's a great read. Very funny, pretty clever, and reminiscent of the kind of western the Coen brothers make for the cinema.

The Sisters are ruthless killers: Eli and Charlie. Eli is the fat one, bit dim and sensitive. Charlie is the snake, a killer to his boots. There's a trailer for the book on YouTube.

I spoke to Patrick via Skype allowing me to both see and hear him. He's a charmer: a great long drink of a man, as skinny as a goalpost, who takes a long time over his sentences and clearly thinks a lot about everything.

Now I said Sisters is a western, but it isn't a western in the way Lonesome Dove is a western.

As DeWitt explained: "I think I've [only] read two [westerns], its not something im drawn to. I'm not drawn to genre writing... I knew the basic tenents of a western ... I knew people ride horses... they smelled worse... I didn't do much research [and that] was liberating. I would recommend that if you are writing a historical novel because research kills those books. Knowing nothing was great. I got to fill in the blanks with imagination instead of Wikipedia..."

His first novel, Ablutions, is quite different to the Sisters. While the Sisters reads just like a western should - with action and anecdote, violence and stupidity - Ablutions is an internalised monologue of someone suffering from alcoholism as he works in a bar.

With his blond hair and square jaw, DeWitt looks like a member of the Master Race, but he's actually a Canadian high school drop out, a former punk, who never even got a High School diploma, let alone a degree in Creative Writing from one of the Better Universities.

I loved hearing him talk about that: he really wanted to be a writer. His father, a carpenter, was a keen but unpublished author and an enthusiastic reader who introduced him to the Beat poets. But somehow Patrick never figured out how you actually became a writer, except by following one of his heroes, Jack Kerouac: which is to say, he roamed around the country doing odd jobs while writing a lot of short stories and reading everything you could lay your hands on.

DeWitt got there in the end. He has a modern, filmic quality to his writing which I liked - and perhaps it isn't so surprising to learn that he has scripted a movie too, which is out in the US in the summer, Terri, directed by a friend of his, Azazel Jacobs.

His comment on that about summed him up. Apparently he'd shown a draft of an unfinished book to Jacobs, who had liked one of the characters enough to suggest turning it into a film. Jacobs put the project together while DeWitt whittled down the pages into a script. I think he was genuinely amazed when the film got the green light and they signed a genuine star - the pockmarked John C Reilly - as the lead.

*My full interview with Patrick DeWitt appears in this week's Big Issue, go buy it from a vendor

Monday, 9 May 2011

Author opens one-book shop to sell his own work | Books | guardian.co.uk

I love this story. It contains possibly the strangest publishing quote of the year. Perhaps of the century so far...

Also, it's so utterly wacko and strange, you have to applaud the author who thought up the idea. In a world where every inch of publicity is counted in units sold, surely Andrew Kessler is the new Barnum. Sort of...

Author opens one-book shop to sell his own work | Books | guardian.co.uk: "I stumbled outside, looked up and saw a church. And then I realised I could try to sell my book like a meatball. Monobookism was born.'"

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Big Issue Scotland joins my search for a new book list

The Big Issue Scotland, the weekly news magazine sold by homeless vendors, has joined me in my search for a new list of 100 unmissable novels.

It's editor saw my blog, loved the idea and suggested he include it in his books pages. I said "OK, as long as you give me your own list." He's working on it as we speak.

Just to recap, there's a perennial on Facebook: a list of 100 titles, supposedly compiled by the BBC, with the question, how many have you read? I explain a little more on the page you can see a link to above or click here.

The problem is it is a dull, safe list which doesn't reflect the kinds of books I read, my friends read - or possibly anyone.

I'd like you to suggest a list of their top five, ten or fifteen novels: novels you really love (not the ones you feel you should mention). Add them as a comment below if that suits - or on the Facebook note which you can find here.

Get your friends to take part. The more people who do, the better the final list will be.

I'll collate the results and publish the results here, on Facebook and in the Big Issue.

Use the comment box below to leave your list.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Martina Cole sells books

Yes, the crime writer does sell a lot of books. Millions of them. Enough to embarrass an entire flock of Booker Prize Judge panels. But she has also started selling books, in a shop, in North Cyprus. Yes really. Her agent's website, DarleyAnderson.com has the details...

The literary clock is ticking ... | Books | guardian.co.uk

This has got to be one of the oddest, geekiest literary web challenges ever....

Doctor Who is keeping this grown up child very happy indeed at Saturday teatime

Incidentally, weren't the new episodes of Doctor Who simply brilliant? Loved the Silence. Loved the slightly camp Americana of it. Thought the injokes about Nixon were just about right (though they went totally over the head of my children...) and found the pacing of the story bang on.

If Stephen Moffat keeps this up, they'll have to give him the job for life.

My head is still reeling a bit from trying to figure out where River Song is on her personal time chart, and if when we meet her again she will be younger and know less about the Doctor than before? But that's the thing about Doctor Who, it starts you thinking about this sort of mad stuff when really you should be doing something else...

* Neil Gaiman has posted this link: http://www.whosay.com/neilgaiman/photos/26685 Great little teaser for his episode 4

High-Rise, by JG Ballard

Our book group, temporarily called the Dystopian Alliance (we change the name every month to suit the book) dissected JG Ballard's High-Rise last week.

This is how book groups work sometimes. Often we get excited about a new release - Franzen's Freedom for instance, or next month's Hitch 22 - at other times we delve into the obscure past. Well, obscure for me anyway.

I'd read a couple of Ballard's books. I think most of us had read at least one, but the 1975 towerblock hell of High-Rise was new to us. None of us are sci-fi geeks so we couldn't remember the Doctor Who episode it supposedly inspired either. And none of us were bothered one way or other that there is a film version supposedly in the pipeline: the Wikipedia entry has some detail on that.

Mostly I think we enjoyed the book, but the discussion itself was more fun than the novel. High-Rise imagines a society that breaks down. An upper crust tower block in central london becomes cut off from the outside world, the residents become dissatisfied and break up into groups, factions, and start fighting each other. Literally, fighting. People are beaten up. Dogs are drowned - we particularly loved this detail. Lots of dead or consumed dogs. And what emerges is a sort of primitive, Lord of the Flies type society in which the strong dominate.

It struck me as being entirely bleak and pessimistic. Typically 70s in that sense. There was an obsession about  piles of rubbish: of black bags piling up. Which reminded me of the bin men strikes that must have been happening about the same time. This was a vision of the world that emerged from the pessimism of a British empire in decline. It is also heavily influenced by Ballard's personal experiences in a concentration camp in Shanghai. But it also reminded me of The Wire and the lawless society that exists in the estates of many cities other than just Baltimore, estates ravaged by drug abuse and criminal gangs.

And yet it was also extremely funny. There was the 70s kitsch of it: it just screamed Abigail's Party. But there was also a lot of humour in the violence: violence that never became too bloody, too much. Dogs were drowned, men were beaten up and thrown down stairs, but somehow it always seemed just a little darker than a schoolyard tussle. Talking about the book was, as I said, hilarious. Every page seemed to contain something to be horrified by. The fact, for instance, that everyone was defined by their job - or their husband's job. It just seemed so ridiculous, but isn't that what we do?

As a result and to my surprise is that I find myself wanting to really recommend you read High-Rise. My first impression of it was that it was a period piece but the more I think about it, the more relevant it feels.