28 March 2014

What's an author to do?

Here are sixteen quotes (verbatim, typos and all) from recent Amazon reviews of The Penal Colony.

1. Unfortunately upon reaching the end I felt unsatisfied due to the author leaving numerous loose ends. This ruined the enjoyment for me.

2. (And with a satisfying ending, too)

3. the ending left a lot to be desired, very open ended and a bit of a disappointment.

4. I always like a happy ending.

5. Not a bad story, would've been quite a bit better if it had been edited better. Also the ending, abruptly one page. C'mon...

6. Great read and loved the ending.

7. The only downside I could find was that the ending of the book was a little too quick for me and I had to read the last chapter a couple of times to see if I had missed something hence I only scored it 4 stars.

8. Well done from beginning to end.

9. I wanted more information about the end the the trip. Without giving spoilers I wanted more of the end . How the trip went. What happened ? The author could have given more there and didn't . It was an ending without a real ending if you like that sort of thing

10. It had a good ending, it was smart, and it spoke to redemption.

11. I felt short changed at the end, but enjoyed it overall.

12. A wonderful story allowing for great character development throughout and the inkling of "I wonder how he fared" at the end.

13. This was an interesting read and the first half is great but by the end it was like, enough already.

14. it is a good story though and has a pretty good ending.

15. I was glad I stuck with it, but have to say that the ending was a bit of a let down!

16. I also want to go on the record and say can you teach other authors to write endings? Yours was damn near perfect and there were no silly cliffhangers or any such nonsense, just a beautiful ending. I just don't get to read but one a year.

See also here.

8 March 2014

My way or the highway, revisited

Image: Peter Ellis 

Hat-tip: The Passive Voice

In an earlier post I wrote this about my experience of trade publishing: If an author’s sales shot into the stratosphere he was treated with shameless sycophancy; otherwise he was never allowed to forget his place. Going by what I see on the web today, not much has changed.

In a most insightful essay, Randall Wood explains this behaviour.

He divides readers into three categories. “Voracious readers” consume one book after another and seek new material far and wide. The more numerous “casual readers” buy no more than about a dozen books a year and stick to an unadventurous but generally reliable list of authors. All other book-buyers are “social readers” who, as individuals, buy few books. They respond to recommendation from a casual reader or another social reader, and buy a title because it is in fashion.

Social readers are where the money is. There are millions and millions of them, vastly outnumbering the voracious readers, who anyway are of little use to publishers because, in order to keep their book budget within bounds, they tend to buy second-hand or use public libraries. Now, of course, they can feed their habit with inexpensive and free ebooks as well.

Word-of-mouth is the biggest booster for any book. It can be rivalled only by huge external publicity (the Man Booker Prize, say, or if a book is banned or its author subjected to a fatwa). Formal promotion is aimed mainly at titles publishers already know will sell. It often amounts to little more than telling fans that a new Stephen King or James Patterson has been released.

The other new titles are, as Mr Wood says, spaghetti thrown at the wall to see if any of it sticks: to see if it gets picked up by casual readers and recommended by them to social readers.

The route to profit for a trade publisher looks like this:

Casual reader > social reader > blockbuster

Blockbusters, the economy of scale, finance the trade publishers and give them a margin with which to acquire spaghetti.

The model is only possible if publishers control the flow of new books into the market. The flow must be restricted so that the casual reader is not overwhelmed. For much the same reason, the window of opportunity for any untried book must be small. The title should disappear if it is not immediately successful, and probably its author likewise.

Self-published ebooks have thrown a spanner into this machine. Even without the lowering of prices driven by indies (publishers’ overheads leave them unable to compete), its innards are already making horrible noises: layoffs, downsizing, mergers. More and more novice authors, and not a few experienced ones, are abandoning the soul-destroying query-go-round of agents and publishers with all its expense, humiliation and delay. They have seen how much more pleasant and profitable it can be to self-publish. The queue of durum farmers in the publishers’ foyer is dwindling. They are flinging their pasta directly at the voracious readers’ wall.

Voracious readers are likely to be more experienced and hence discerning. Their recommendations carry weight. They blog, they tweet, they are on Facebook and Goodreads. The entirely new and (for a trade publisher) alarming process:

Voracious reader > casual and social reader > blockbuster

has already been seen with Hugh Howey’s Wool and E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Once newbie and mid-list authors realize that they are regarded by trade publishing as suppliers of spaghetti, the queue is going to dwindle further.

Stephen King and James Patterson will not be around for ever, alas, even assuming that they themselves are not lured into indiehood by the outsized royalties.

Bean counters at the media conglomerates that own the Big Five already scrutinize the bottom line. When it turns red, the old dynamic will be, to borrow the words of one of Randall Wood’s commenters, road kill.

3 March 2014

PyRoom and search

PyRoom is my favourite distraction-free editor, described here. Despite what I wrote back then, I do rather miss a search function. One was slated at LaunchPad, but that was in October 2009.

PyRoom produces plain text files, and these of course can be manipulated with any other text editor. I like jEdit, which I use with its XML plug-in to turn my texts into HTML and thence into ebooks.

Here’s the thing. If a file is open simultaneously in jEdit and another application, and the other application changes and saves it, jEdit can automatically detect the change.

PyRoom runs principally on Linux. A Mac version is here; installation is not for the novice. jEdit is available for the Macintosh as well.

Like the Mac’s OS X, Linux supports multiple “workspaces”. You can switch between them in various ways, including a keystroke combination, which is handy because PyRoom takes up the whole screen. If you have PyRoom open in Workspace 1, say, and jEdit open in Workspace 2 it is easy and quick to swap from one to the other.

To use PyRoom and jEdit simultaneouly, save your PyRoom file with Ctrl-S. (Saving to the desktop is easiest here.) Switch to Workspace 2. Click on the file’s icon: if jEdit is configured as your default text editor, the file opens at once. (Otherwise, right-click and choose jEdit in the “Open With” dialog.) Hit Ctrl-F and you’re ready to search. If you make no change to the file, simply go back to PyRoom and continue drafting. If you have changed something with jEdit, save the altered file, and then, in PyRoom, empty its buffer with Ctrl-W. Hit Ctrl-O and reopen the file. This takes no more than a couple of seconds. On opening a file, PyRoom puts the cursor at the end, so you should try to keep the “coal face” there: in other words, if you have odd and sods of text that you want to retain in that file, store them at the beginning. The alternative is to page-up back to your place, which is tiresome because ... there’s no search function :-)

When you need to go back to jEdit, save the file again with PyRoom and you’ll find a jEdit dialog telling you that changes have been detected.

When your session comes to an end, save the file using PyRoom (I also “Save As” on a USB stick in case the hard disk blows up). In jEdit, hit Ctrl-W (close file) and Ctrl-Q (quit) and you’re done.

This is a work-around, I know, but it does work, and needs only a few more keystrokes than a built-in search function.

To conclude, here are some PyRoom tips.

The choice of font is important. Depending how big a font is “on the body”, the text will appear more or less dense. As I noted in my other post, you can increase the line-spacing (i.e. the leading) in the Preferences, but this introduces unsightly gaps between paragraphs. It is best to keep the extra line-spacing to no more than 2 or 3 pixels.

I have tested a lot of fonts. The best professional-quality, seriffed font I have found for use with PyRoom, having an acceptable amount of built-in “leading”, is Bitstream Charter. The best professional-quality, sanserif font I have found is Droid Sans (Droid Sans Fallback looks identical to me). Both Bitstream Charter and Droid Sans [Fallback] will be found in a typical Linux distribution.

PyRoom does not support italics, bold, or smart quotes. Nor will it automatically convert ellipses, short or long dashes, etc. You can add these by hand, but that’s fiddly and time-consuming. It’s easier to keep to plain text until your draft is complete.

I use a simple set of characters for markup, as follows:

= open and close =italics= (I find this easier on the eye than the underscore character)

* open and close *bold*

" double-quotes (both opening and closing)

' apostrophe, close-single-quotes and elision marks (e.g. fish ’n’ chips)

` (U+0060) open-single-quotes (there is usually a key for this on PC keyboards)

-- en-dash

--- em-dash

... three full-stops for an ellipse

Angle brackets enclose headings and chapter breaks, e.g. < PART ONE >, < chapter break >

Curly brackets enclose other things I may need to attend to individually, such as:

{pb} pagebreak

{fl} flush this line left

{fc} centre this one

{fr} flush this one right

{e/} accented character, é in this case; others are {a"}, {c cedilla}, etc.

The regular-expressions option in jEdit’s search-and-replace dialog will swiftly help you to convert these into HTML tags and entities. The rule when “smartifying” double quotes is that each " preceded by a newline or space becomes an open-double-quote. Change these first, then the rest will be close-double-quotes. I haven’t got round to learning how to write a jEdit macro to automate the S-&-R, but it’s on the to-do list ...

23 February 2014

Building the mosaic

The human retina has two sorts of photoreceptors. Rods (so called for their shape) respond only to dim, monochromatic light, while cones are adapted to the perception of colour and detail. The middle of the retina is formed into a small pit, the fovea. Here the cones are densest; and in the middle of the fovea is an area about a third of a millimetre in diameter, called the foveola, where the concentration of cones is greatest of all.

Rather than perceiving something in detail all at once, we scan it. The musculature of the eyes makes a series of tiny jerks, termed saccades, shifting the foveola from one point to another. In this way the brain builds up a mosaic which the imagination and memory try to make sense of.

Hearing operates in an analogous manner, using a granular series of pressure waves. In fact the whole of our perception works like this.

What we do with the mosaic depends on who we are. Our genetics, prejudices and past experiences are all brought to bear when integrating and interpreting information.

Yesterday I walked the path fringing the harbour. The tidal surge that recently wreaked havoc on this coast has left behind huge quantities of brash – the brown and decaying remnants of marsh plants, mixed here and there with branches of seablite or gorse, driftwood, plastic debris, gates, fencing, boats large and small, even an errant, crazily-angled footbridge. The path is still muddy, but under a mild south-westerly breeze and an even milder February sun it was beginning to dry out. Spring is returning to this hemisphere. The birds know it; but the season is still winter.

The sky was azure, the clouds white, the sea ultramarine. Far away across the estuary, on the sands at the end of the shingle spit, many seals were basking. The profile of the bottom there forms a trap for fish. Those mobile specks, too distant to identify, were fish-eating birds: mergansers, goldeneyes, Slavonian grebes, red-throated divers, perhaps black-throated and great northern divers as well (all were reported later). The scene was alive with birds, a thousand or more brent geese, innumerable gulls, cormorants, swirling clouds of waders – knot and dunlin, mainly, no doubt. For me, with my history and interests, an arc of excitement was building.

At length the path brought me to the fen, a wide, quiet, reed-fringed lagoon behind the sea wall, with inlets and spits where birds can hide, rest and preen. On my preceding visit a single avocet, an early harbinger of spring, had been swimming there and upending like a duck. Now there were forty. The lapwing flock had dwindled; the golden plover had gone altogether, and in their place were black-tailed godwits.

Because I had left my telescope at home, I spent a long time scrutinizing the fen with binoculars only. It is surprising how much information the foveolas can glean, even at low magnification. I sorted through the geese on the far side, admired the pintails (surely there is no more elegant creature than a drake pintail), examined the many black-headed gulls for something rare, counted the godwits and avocets, jotted notes. Just when I thought I had covered everything I picked up a single drake pochard, feeding where the water is deepest.

Descending the wooden steps, I gained the footpath that skirts the western side: I had decided to walk even further, to check the freshwater meres near the coast road. The footpath is thickly lined with scrub and small trees, but here and there affords views of the fen.

My afternoon was assembling grain by grain, like the pixels on this computer screen or the frames of a cinema film, like the words of a story or even the letters of a sentence. I was content, more than content, with my reward for the long walk. This landscape has always suited me very well, and if the day had offered nothing more I should have gone home happy.

I stopped once more to raise my binoculars to the fen. They were filled with leafless willows, a tawny wall of dead reeds, gunmetal water, all sunlit from the right, the colours perfect. Then, low above the reeds, I saw the thuggish bulk of a female sparrowhawk coming slantwise in my direction. Her brown plumage co-ordinated exactly with the waxen twigs and branches of the willows. In an instant she was lost to view behind the foreground hawthorns.

A bird of prey is a solitary assassin, living fast, much of its time yielded to the imperative to feed. An evolutionary arms race joins predator and prey: most attacks end in failure. As the winter afternoon wanes a hungry hawk can become desperate and even reckless.

Sparrowhawks hunt in various ways. A common ploy is to cruise the length of a hedge and flip over it to surprise whatever is on the other side – a blackbird or even a wood pigeon, for a really strong female hawk. This one was using the reedbed like that.

For an odd, floating moment I was the only one who knew she had arrived. Then most of the birds on the fen took flight, many more lapwings than I had been able to count, avocets, gulls, even some of the teal and wigeon; the rasping cries of a fleeing snipe came from high above the willows.

I could not tell whether the hawk had struck, and didn’t see her again, but my glimpse of her had unified what had gone before. It was the final piece of mosaic. The naturalist longs to blend with nature, to learn its secrets, a hopeless quest but one that always draws him on. Just for those two or three seconds before the fen erupted, I was as much hawk as human.

It bears saying that each of has unique experiences, all the time. Each of us is building a unique vision of the world. If I had no interest in birds, or had simply been looking the other way, my afternoon would have felt quite different. And your past few minutes would have felt different too, because you would not have been reading this, but assembling some other mosaic, in keeping with the larger mosaic that conforms to the unique combination made by your genetics, history, and system of beliefs.

15 February 2014

Welcome to the Reformation

An Atari ST

Since the publication of the first report at Author Earnings, the debate about the merits or otherwise of self-publication has intensified. At times it has become acrimonious. This is understandable, given (1) the treatment meted out by traditional publishing to many writers and (2) the disruption threatening the livelihoods of all those in the book trade who depend on a regular supply of text – text meekly submitted by people kept in the dark about the financial side of the business.

The report concerns itself with money, and plainly a fair return on an author’s labour is desirable for various reasons, such as enabling the writing to continue. We see that self-publication is likely to be more profitable than trad: but it will also lead to an improvement in the range and quality of work available to the reader, and this in my view is just as exciting as the liberation, at long, long last, of writers from poverty.

Because publishers once controlled the means of distribution of books, as a class they effectively had a veto on what was available to readers. Editors’ beliefs and prejudices were paramount, even though the market they claimed to understand was always evolving, always a thing of the past. And because publishing is a business, it is safer to decline rather than accept an unusual book proposal. It takes an exceptional editor to champion what at first blush looks like an uncommercial book.

The effect of this on authors is – was – dire. If they wanted their writing to pay, they had to shape their submissions to the perceived profile of the gatekeepers’ gate. Having gained access, they might find themselves being told to remodel their work, however badly this violated whatever remained of their original vision. Then, if the mangled book proved a failure, the author alone would be blamed, typically to the detriment of his career.

The self-publisher is not troubled by any of this. That will allow a greater variety of books to appear, including masterpieces that would never have made it out of the charmingly-named “slush-pile”.

Before the self-pub revolution, the majority of titles had a limited shelf-life: a matter of a few months, in some cases. The competition was less intense. A new book today must compete with all those electronic backlists posted by professional writers who have got their rights back. It must compete with the torrent of titles being released by authors who never did, or never would, get past the gatekeepers. And it must compete with everything in the public domain which is now so easy to access. The catalogue is expanding at an incredible rate, and ebooks have an indefinite shelf-life.

Interviewed nearly four years ago, Gail Rebuck of Random House said, “Publishers are relevant. We have practical expertise and, of course, money. We give our authors advances which enable them to concentrate on their work in hand … My idea of hell is a website with 80,000 self-published works on it – some of which might be jewels, but, frankly, who’s got the time? What people want is selection and frankly that’s what we do.”

In response to which, the Recalcitrant Scrivener wrote: My vision of hell is one in which extremely aggressive but not particularly literate people decide what the rest of us should read.

(BTW do check out the rest of his blog.)

Readers now decide what is good, not some hack of a critic, or some wet-behind-the-ears editor or some agent with dilated dollar-signs for pupils. If a novel sells in quantity, though it may be decried by the self-selected elite, it is by definition successful. Its popularity is proof of that, whether it merely entertains or speaks to the reader at a deeper level.

The majority of published books have always been mediocre, if not actually atrocious; and they have been published, and such books are still being published, by firms like Random House. Bad books will continue to sink, just as they always have.

Authors are finally free to experiment. Publication is now guaranteed. There is every chance that a good book will be recognized and rewarded financially as well as critically. And, to cap it all, readers are finally seeing fair prices – from indies, at any rate.

I remember one afternoon in the 1980s, at the depth of my travails in the publishing trade. The Atari ST computer had just been announced. It offered affordable desktop publishing (a Mac was out of the question) and I seriously thought of getting one so that I could typeset and print my own fiction and sell it directly to readers. What is happening now was unimaginable then, at least for me. It is a miracle for writers and readers alike. I am glad I have lived to see it.

Not a miracle for publishers, perhaps, but then they’ve had a pretty good innings – ever since 1455 when a certain J. Gutenberg disrupted the game for all those legions of monks crouched over their manuscripts.

5 January 2014


This is going to get a lot of coverage. A new library has opened in Texas. So what?

It has no paper books.

27 December 2013

A bridge in Amsterdam


I really like this video. For one thing, it is a celebration of that most ingenious, elegant and liberating machine, the bicycle (in Amsterdam the cyclist is king). We see mainly the so-called Dutch bikes, heavy and untemperamental, variously accessorized and personalized; sometimes a mysterious clutch of identical bikes appears, ridden of course by beings who are not at all identical. The scene is hypnotic though full of interest and little surprises, full also of fleeting speculation about the lives and relationships of the people – pedestrians as well as riders – passing in and out of view.

They interact with calm and courtesy, making allowance for one another, observing only the rule that one should keep generally to the right. Everything else is improvised. Except for the roadway and the structure of the bridge, we see nothing of the state, no nannying, no hectoring. There is not one helmet. Luggage – even a Van-Goghesque chair – is carried as the rider alone thinks fit. A girl examines her phone as she coasts down the incline, one eye out for danger. No one is hurt or even inconvenienced.

When motorized vehicles – especially four-wheeled ones – appear, they seem monstrously intrusive. Though the cyclists and pedestrians have equal status, we only become aware of that when a car disturbs the flow. The bicycles themselves are equal. Their owners do not seek to impress other cyclists thereby. Not a shred of Lycra can be seen.

The film has another effect on me. I begin to understand the viewpoint of street furniture, assuming lamp-posts, bollards, litter-bins and the like are capable of vision. It might not be so bad, being a bench, provided you're sited somewhere nice.

The opinions above are coloured by the fact that I like very much Holland and the Dutch. Moreover, I am a lifelong cyclist and envy the understanding shown by drivers in Holland and indeed Germany, where the cyclist is also king.

The video-maker's original blog post is here; the comments are worth reading. And by the way, if you want to see what's on the other side of the bridge, Google Maps is your friend.