Monday, 28 October 2013

A Cabinet of Inspiration

I was rummaging through my filing cabinet recently, looking for some pre-digital photographs from an American holiday so I could scan them in and use them to illustrate a post on another blog (using photos as inspiration for stories and scenes - can't link it as it isn't yet live...)

Apart from the usual folders one has in a filing cabinet for bills, car documents, bank stuff and other household gubbins, I have stacks of junk I hoard. Things I've picked up over the years that inspire me, remind me of people and places and that might trigger a story or provide research material.

I got the leaflet on the right at Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker in Cheshire. This place is a Cold War relic and well worth a visit if you're ever near Nantwich (fascinating journey underground into a nuclear bunker - the scariest thing being the civil service furniture that was still being used when I started work in London. Those lurid purple and green chair covers ere enough to scare anybody). But does anybody remember these actual leaflets being delivered to houses in the 1970s? I do. I remember being thoroughly terrified by the idea of nuclear war as a child - watching the BBC drama Threads and wondering what was going to happen to us all.

What else is in my folder. A Rand McNally road atlas of the USA. Great for mileages and logistics but probably redundant in the days of Google maps. More useful are the tourist guides to the National Parks. I've got the original tv script for an episode of Urban Gothic - the one I novelised which eventually appeared in an anthology alongside Christopher Fowler, Graham Masterton and Paul Finch, amongst others.

There are also several 'Europa' newsletters. These date back to the early 1980s when I was involved in a wargames campaign based on the 30 Years War in Europe. This involved a lot of scheming and plotting - there were a dozen or more people involved and the girl who ran it produced these exquisitely-detailed newsletters containing 'letters to the editor' and local news snippets as well as the main issues of 17th century Europe. Remember that this was pre-computer and very much a labour of love typed up every month on a typewriter, literally cut-and-pasted, and photocopied. So much rich detail for anybody writing historical fiction (which sadly has never interested me yet).

I have masses of police leaflets too. Everything from the Forensic Science Service glossy brochure to the Crown Prosecution Service leaflets of sentencing and court procedures - if nothing else these are useful for me to know what is and isn't in the public domain when I'm writing crime.

I'll go through it all eventually and chuck out the stuff that has outlived its storage space. But most of might come in useful one day and I'm far too much of a squirrel!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Are We Ready Yet?

So you're all eagerly waiting the new book. You are, aren't you? I'm not just shouting into the abyss here?

Well the paperback is (unofficially) out. I had to publish it in order to be able to order stock myself. Amazon hasn't yet caught up, so it's not on my author page, but you can search for it. I'm not putting up links etc here until I've "launched" it properly in the next few weeks, although I've already sold three! The ebook will come out on most platforms around the same time - or a day or two beforehand. You can even pre-order at smashwords now in any ebook format that takes your fancy.

Whether it will ever be available at kobo or their subsidiaries remains to be seen. At present none of my titles are available there; not even my YA fantasy Edge of Dreams where the most erotic action is a single very chaste boy/girl kiss....

Monday, 14 October 2013

An Indie Ebook Watershed?

A couple of days ago, UK high-street retailer WH Smith took the unprecedented step of switching off its entire online store and replacing it with a “holding page” explaining the reasons for this action. This was apparently due to customer complaints after a number of ‘inappropriate’ books were retrieved by the website search engine while customers were looking for children’s books.  More information and examples can be found at a variety of online news sites, such as the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Mirror. Even the Guardian is getting in on the act.

For those readers unfamiliar with the store, WH Smith has a branch on most UK high streets and sells books, stationery items and magazines; the bigger stores also sell CDs and gifts. It has a generally wholesome image, promotes Richard & Judy book titles and is considered family-friendly. Not the place you’d expect to find hardcode pornography then – even the lads’ mags are doubtless regulated to the top-shelf where small fingers can’t innocently pick them up with a comic. I say doubtless because in all honestly, I’ve never looked …

So why do they exist in the online store? Because WH Smith – like many other retailers – takes a data feed from Kobo, an ebook retailer that publishes books from anybody and everybody with little or no vetting of the contents. Kobo itself takes data feeds from other ‘ebook aggregators’ – websites that distribute a book to multiple online retail sites on behalf of the author or publisher (and either charge a per-title flat-fee or take a cut of the profit in return for the service). Kobo is slightly different however in that it also allows authors to upload direct to the site.

This isn’t uncommon in the online retailing business. But as the sale of ebooks and ebook readers has taken the market by storm, ebook aggregators and retail sites have never really invested time or money in content-filtering – ensuring that not all books get published, and those that do are regulated and tagged appropriately to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands. Many of the books that have caused this furore have apparently violated the t&c of the sites in question and may even been illegal. WH Smith is potentially liable for prosecution - hence the reaction to pull the entire website.

And with the explosion in ebook sales comes the realisation that anything can be published. By anybody. Whether there is a market for it or not. Since Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s been a race to the bottom, even from the big publishers to produce ever more explicit erotica. Who can blame the independent authors for wanting a slice of a very lucrative pie? But with no gatekeepers, no content-filtering and little quality control from the online publishing/retail sites that Amazon’s KDP, Kobo Writing Life, Smashwords etc, there is nobody to police the increasingly smelly cess-pit of internet pornography. And some of the stuff out there is horrific. Just the other night I glanced through some new titles available via Smashwords. One in particular stood out with tags that would make your eyes water, a blurb that was offensive in the extreme and certainly not something any self-respecting author would want to be connected with. Does nobody at Smashwords even take a cursory glance at the titles uploaded?

Rape-fantasy and incest are not topics I would personally want to read about. I don’t believe in censorship, but if authors cannot or will not self-police or self-regulate, do we really have a choice? There is a world of difference between pornography written for titillation and memoirs about child-abuse. Or a textbook on healing or psychology, or the description of a rape in a crime novel. Do we deny victims of abuse a voice? It’s the glorification of it that is the issue – therefore simply searching for keywords or titles will never been a means of identifying books which should maybe be in a category all of their own, and invisible to store search engines unless explicitly invoked. But then who is to say that Fifty Shades or even titles like Lolita should be banned? Even Lady Chatterley's
Lover was considered indecent in its time. 

So what will happen now? I sense a watershed moment for ebooks. WH Smith has said it will remove 'all self-published books' before it re-opens its site. So that will leave Fifty Shades and other ‘legitimate’ erotica titles, and readers will lose the ability to buy some amazingly good books of all genres from writers who for a variety of reasons do not always publish with a publishing company. Kobo has already deactivated possibly all titles it considers to be self-published, regardless of genre or content - none of my titles are currently available to buy. Other ebook sites like Barnes & Noble, Apple and Sony are doubtless considering their own actions. Even the mighty Amazon has pulled several books recently. And how do you define self-published anyway? Anybody can set themselves up as a publisher. Anybody can buy ISBNs. We are in danger of throwing out the entire bathroom as well as the baby with the bathwater.

For the record, I think that WH Smith has made the right move in the short term. It remains to be seen how the company will deal with this crisis in the medium-to-long-term and how companies like Kobo react. Now you may say that children should not be surfing the net unsupervised and I agree with that. But even with supervision, do you really want your five-year-old seeing book covers and blurbs that are at best distasteful and at worst illegal? And imagine the online revenue that WH Smith is losing by pulling the entire online store while they work out what to do next. That shows you just how seriously they are taking these allegations and their concerns may not be unfounded if some of the offending titles are found to be illegally obscene and not just morally obscene.

Maybe sites like Amazon and Smashwords should be charging independent authors to upload a book for sale? Perhaps that would generate sufficient revenue to employ staff to vet books offered for publication. At the very least the retail sites should be employing better filters on their search engines. It's not rocket science these days.

I predict that October 2013 will be a turning point in self-publishing and ebook retailing and I hope we go forwards in the right direction.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Rock Night!

So last night I went to a rock concert. In the village. Yes - sleepy little Moulton in Cheshire hosted Wille and The Bandits, an indie band who've toured with Deep Purple and Status Quo and are apparently on the verge of making it big. Now I've seen the Quo and Rainbow in concert and am not averse to a bit of rock (the red leather mini in previous posts might be a bit of a giveaway?) But in Moulton? Hosted by local music appreciation group Malt 'n' Music, the gig was a huge sell-out success and our little village hall was rocking until late.

But it got me thinking. The last live music concert I went to was probably Meat Loaf way back in the early 1990s at Wembley. I stopped going to standing-only venues (Deeside ice rink in my teenage years) as I have a real fear of large crowds. Standing in the middle of hundreds of people is my idea of hell and I like the security of a seat - yes, and the comfort too as I get older!

But when I was 17 or so, I used to see a lot of indie bands. In the backstreets of Birkenhead (say it with a Scouse accent - it has to be done - Beerkin-ed), behind Hamilton Square station was a place called the Sir James Club that used to host lots of local bands. My friend Ruth and I would go and watch whoever was playing on rock nights and on several bank holidays they'd run 24-hour rock-marathons with several bands and a rock disco. Sometimes I'm amazed that my parents were so relaxed about all this - although maybe they didn't always know! I even remember dancing on the tables in the BierKeller in Liverpool one Saturday night ....

So I did a little bit of digging. I don't think Alternative Radio ever made it big, despite winning Battle of the Bands in the 1980s. But apparently they are still touring....

Or how about French Lessons? Another 80s band and I still have their albums on cassette. I even managed to run them through some software and convert them to digital files a few years back, so the tracks are on my iphone now and still as good as they were 30 years ago. I recommend them - can't find anything on YouTube but you can download for free from their website.

Who would I go and see now? I did like the small local venue of our village hall. I liked being able to dance at the front and knowing most of the people there. On a bigger stage I'd like to see Blackmore's Night as I've always loved Ritchie Blackmore's stuff and I like the way they've rocked-up Bob Dylan and other folk tracks. I'd probably go and see Jethro Tull again too. And I confess I'd love to see Alice Cooper in concert, though I don't think I'd dare ...

I'm looking forward to seeing what Malt 'n' Music put on next locally. And I really, really want to get my daughter Clare up on stage - even if she only performs one song. She's singing in a competition in a couple of weeks and has such an amazing voice, but she's a classical singer and is far happier with something from Rodgers and Hammerstein than anything from the top 40. She sang at a friend's birthday party last month and blew everyone away ...