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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Commercial break?

Can anyone explain the newspaper book-pages to me? I just can't figure them out. While page after page is devoted to non-fiction and supposedly "literary" novels, the best that more "commercial" works can hope for is a dismissive mention on a roundup page or, more often than not, being ignored altogether. This despite the fact that commercial fiction in general (and crime and thrillers in particular), accounts for the vast majority of UK book sales - just take a look at the Sunday Times bestseller lists and compare the numbers.

This isn't sour grapes - well not entirely! But I can't think of another industry in the world where the buying preferences and needs of such a large segment of the population are so completely underserved by the media. Just think for a second of the wall-to-wall coverage (good and bad) that overtly "commercial" rock bands and Hollywood films get, compared to the silent treatment afforded to, for example, Martina Cole's latest offering, despite her routinely selling 1m copies plus. Can you imagine the pages of Empire being devoted exclusively to documentaries and those beautifully shot European films where people smoke and argue a lot but basically nothing happens for 90 minutes? And yet that's exactly what it sometimes seems the newspaper Arts and Culture pages offer up on a weekly basis.

On one level, this does appear to be symptomatic of a certain form of the intellectual snobbery that afflicts the book industry in particular: the argument seems to go that anything mass-market must be by definition badly written, low-brow and derivative, otherwise people wouldn't be flocking to buy it in such numbers. Not only is this pretty insulting to the millions of us who buy these types of books (let alone the writers!), it also ignores the fact that there are plenty of so called "literary" books that are badly written, leaden-footed and, let's face it, just plain boring. It also fails to account for the quality of writers such as Le Carré or Thomas Harris (pre Hannibal Rising!) or the iconic cultural impact of James Bond which few "literary" books could ever hope to replicate.

But if it is intellectual snobbery, then what drives it? Are the editors of the book-pages frustrated writers content to snipe from the sidelines, or published authors who have seen their worthy 300 page dissection of an adulterous couple's inner monologue crash and burn, and therefore instinctively resent others succeeding? I doubt it.

Do they see perhaps themselves as the guardians of good taste, as a sort of filter protecting us from being corrupted by mass consumerism? It's true that the barriers to entry for writing a book are quite low (an idea and a laptop) and a lot more books are published than films released or albums made. But then getting published isn't exactly easy, as agents and publishers do act as a pretty effective screen. Besides, who made book-page editors judge and jury, able to decide on our account what we should be reading and what is and isn't worthy of commentary and review?

Maybe I'm wrong, but somewhere along the line the media (possibly aided and abetted by people within the publishing industry?) seems to have decided that that books aren't part of the entertainment industry, that they operate at a far higher plane than the rather unsavory commercial world that the other creative arts occupy. (Maybe it's something to do with writing - people get quite sniffy about plays too). And yet, depressingly unromantic though it may be to admit it, aren't books competing for people's attention, time and money as much as CDs, DVD and the latest Playstation game?

Believe me I'm not suggesting that all "commercial" books are well written or deserving of our attention, nor that all "literary" books are boring and don't sell - the truth is there are good and bad examples in both genres and as a French Literature graduate and avid thriller reader, I’ve seen my fair share of both! Nor am I saying that the newspaper book pages should simply follow the money and switch their entire focus to commercial fiction - there is a vital role to be played in helping shape opinion and guide us, given the sheer volume of books that hit the shelves.

I guess my fundamental point is that while some readers will only read "literary" fiction and others only "commercial", the majority of people are caught somewhere between the two and are open to a whole range of books, depending on their mood or the time of day or where in the world they happen to be. The type of book you take to read by the pool, for example, might be very different from the one you take on the Tube to work, or curl up with on a cold December afternoon. That has nothing to do about a book being "literary" or "commercial" and much more whether it is a good read, which is surely the ultimate yardstick by which all books should be measured.

Couldn't the book pages do a much better job of reflecting this diversity?

Monday, 23 April 2007

Mild and Bitter

Safely back from Austria (definition of a good break = only 2 nappies changed in four days!) and straight into the bear pit that is the London Book Fair. Luckily I checked my invite before setting out because I was all set on grabbing my passport and making the trek over to Docklands where it was last time round.

This year the festivities were in the far more civilised (relatively) surroundings of Earl's Court. My invite was courtesy of the Theakston's Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate where I am on a panel discussing Daphné du Maurier - yes, in case you're wondering, I'm s***ing myself at the thought of being grilled by an audience of DdM anoraks!

I swung by the HarperCollins stand on my way in and had the good fortune to find J-Lo (my agent) locked in conversation with Amanda Ridout, the MD of Harper's General Books Group and VERY IMPORTANT. The good news is they promised me that they had big plans for promoting The Gilded Seal. The bad news is that we agreed to dicuss it further over lunch - based on their reputations, it could get ugly.

That brief diversion meant that I timed my entry into the Harrogate event perfectly, arriving just in time to hear the final speech being applauded and to be immediately collared by Laura Wilson who:

a) is scarily sharp
b) is on the same panel as me at Harrogate; and
c) managed to freak me out even more than I already am, by listing all the du Maurier biographies, novels and short stories she has already read. Immediately made a mental note to order entire collected works from Amazon as soon as I got home that night.

Then bumped into the loveley Natasha Cooper / Daphne Wright (I can't keep track of all her psedonyms) who always makes such an effort to help me by introducing me to journalists, other writers etc. She's not quite my fairy godmother, but she's not far off!

Also in attendance was the mild mannered Simon Theakstone (he of bitter brewing fame - see how I cleverly worked in the title?) who greeted me with the rather wonderful line: "Ah! It's so rare to meet a young man drinking beer out of a glass", nodding sagely, as if I had passed some sort of unspoken test. It reminded me of that classic scene in From Russia With Love where Bond identifies the enemy agent by the way he orders red wine with fish.

There's a lesson there for all of us. Drinking out of a bottle may well reveal you as a Smersh spy.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Batteries not included

There's no instruction manual on how to be a writer. No simple "how to" guide that you can turn to for help and guidance. Or if there is, no-one gave it to me.

I'm not talking about the writing part of being writer - the "doing", if you like. That's the easy part! Well maybe not easy, but at least once you've armed yourself with an idea, a computer and (most elusive of all) some spare time, you can turn to all sorts of creative writing courses or self-help books if you need guidance with annoying little details like plot, scene setting, characterisation or dialogue. In other words, the help is out there if you need it.

What I'm talking about is how to navigate the far more treacherous and uncharted waters of "being" a writer. The tips and tricks and dos and don'ts essential to literary survival. When you first get going, for example, no-one tells you about copy editing, or six monthlies,
or (the lack of!) marketing budgets, or in-store promotions, or being ranged, or how titles and covers have to get the thumbs up from the big buyers, even though these are all critical parts of the business. Instead, you're meant to pick all this up either through some alchemistic process of osmosis from other writers (who are mostly equally in the dark) or through a 'bright lights and thumbscrews' interrogation of your agent and publisher who, Wizard of Oz like, often seem strangely reluctant to lift the curtain on their Emerald Cities.

This is relevant because I am writing to you from Kitzbuhel in Austria (what do you call a blog written while away? A flog (foreign blog) or a hog (holiday blog? Anyway...) where I have just fallen into one of these big heffalump traps that you're somehow meant to intuitively know about, but that you only really find out about once you've fallen a** over t** straight into it.

There should be a top ten of these. In fact, I think I'm going to give it some thought and come with a list. I'm not sure where this one would rank (quite high I expect) but I'll call it the Foreign Bookshop Humiliation:

1. Go into Alpine bookshop where you are available both in an exported English edition and a local translation
2. Ask, in a confident manner, if they do indeed have copy/ies of your book
3. Experience the singular embarrassment of having the shopkeeper repeat your name five times, clearly never having heard it before, and then adopting the same blank, slightly despairing gaze they would if you had just asked for a copy of Adolf Hitler's collected love poems
4. On the way out see three (yes three) copies of Alex Barclay's (admittedly excellent) Darkhouse, despite having the same publisher and the same editor
5. Visit every other bookshop in town, including the one you saw at the motorway service station on the way in. Eventually find a copy being used to help prop up the latest Kathy Reichs (like she needs my help!)
6. Buy it, in the hope they'll reorder and that your Tyrolean sales will show a small spike

Oh yes, I've been there! And in retrospect, I think there are three main strategies for avoiding this type of scenario:

a) Before travelling, ring ahead a place a huge order for your own books with every bookshop in town so that when you get there the shelves are groaning, even if they all get returned a few weeks later
b) Get whatever distribution deal Alex Barclay has
c) Relax. Enjoy your holiday.

The preferred approach is of course either a) or b), maybe even both in combination. Going on holiday and not checking out every bookshop you come across, so that you can bitch and moan about how your book isn't on show but everyone else's is, is just not an option for any self-respecting insecure writer. Maybe that's why there's no instruction manual - the only way to be happy is to stress about absolutely everything!

PS - The irony is that while away, I heard from J-Lo (my agent) that I'd got into the German bestseller list! Who needs the Tyrol when the Fatherland beckons ....

Monday, 2 April 2007

Slings and arrows

Writing can be a tough business.

No, don't worry, I'm not looking for (or expecting) any sympathy, especially not from you lot! But it does seem to be one of those professions where, perhaps a bit like acting or even running your own business, you have to endure these huge swings from real high to terrible low and (hopefully) back again. The clichéd expression typically deployed to describe this type of experience is that it is a "rollercoaster" but I'm not sure how appropriate that is - for a start it implies that it is in some way exciting and enjoyable when often the reverse is true! I see it more as an extended game of snakes and ladders.

Every so often something good happens which seems to propel you forward a few squares. Every so often you suffer a reverse which sends you back the other way. And of course luck, or the dice to stretch the analogy, plays a huge part in all of this. The important thing, perhaps, is not to get too distracted by these fluctuations in fortune and just focus on generally moving in the right direction and avoiding that really annoying snake that takes you all the way back down to the begining (which for some reason I always seem to land on more often than the ladder which takes me all the way to the top!)

Anyway, I mention all this because I landed on a small ladder yesterday which I wanted to celebrate for once (my normal insecure predisposition is to dwell on the setbacks). As part of an an interview with Lee Child, The Sunday Telegraph, no less, identified its six top thriller writers and I (to my surprise and pleasure) was one of them alongside James Patterson, Tess Gerritsen, Joseph Kanon, Mo Hayder, and John Twelve Hawkes. Now I have to admit that this article was published on April Fool's Day, but I think they were deadly serious. [in fact you can click here to read it if you don't believe me]

Anyway, it's made my week, which only got better when I received through the post a traditional red scarf from the city of Pamplona in Spain worn during the annual Sanfermines festival (you know the one where tourists get gored to death by bulls and everyone else cheers).

It was sent to me by Carmen Jane de Carlos, who is officially my first fan in Spain! The biggest high, or ladder, or whatever you want to call it, of being a writer is hearing from readers from around the world who have enjoyed my books. But it's even better when they send gifts!

Thanks Carmen - next time a bull chases me at least I'll be dressed for the occasion.