Friday, 30 December 2011

How thriller writers get it wrong

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

I’ve always maintained that authors, and most especially the writers of thrillers which feature what might be termed ‘boys’ toys’, need to get their facts right. Over the past two or three years, I’ve been asked on several occasions to review books immediately prior to publication so that a short quote from ‘James Becker’ or ‘James Barrington’ could be included on the front, or a slightly longer quote on the back, cover.
            I’ve always taken this task seriously, and I’ve always tried to produce the right kind of ‘sound-bite’ quote, and I’ve also tried to be honest about the book, because there’s no point in saying ‘This is the best book I’ve ever read’ or some equally over the top comment if it’s manifestly true that it’s at best a potboiler. So far, I’ve probably been lucky, because I’ve actually enjoyed the books I’ve been sent, and thinking of something complimentary to say about them hasn’t been difficult.
            The other thing that I’ve done with these books is to read them critically, because I absolutely know that mine might be the last pair of eyes to see the manuscript before it goes to the printer, so it really is the last possible chance to get everything right. And what has surprised me is how many errors of fact haven’t been picked up by that stage.
            I remember one book where the hero – who was of course a qualified pilot, qualified diver, qualified lover and qualified killer – landed his helicopter on the deck of a ship and then climbed out to talk to some people while he waited for the rotors to stop turning. This makes as much sense as getting out of a car doing thirty miles an hour while you wait for it to stop. Ask any helicopter pilot.
            I’ve lost count of the number of authors who can manage to fit a silencer – the correct word is ‘suppressor’ – to a revolver. You can do it, of course, but it’ll have virtually no effect on the noise the weapon makes when it fires. On a revolver, most of the sound emanates from the gap between the chamber and the rear end of the barrel. And then there are the people in the books who cock a semiautomatic pistol by pulling back the hammer. Certainly, that will allow the hammer to fall when the trigger is pulled, but unless the weapon is first cocked by pulling back the slide, it certainly won’t fire a round.
This train of thought was sparked by novel I’m reading at the moment – not a review copy, just a book I picked up somewhere – and in the space of half a dozen pages the author, who is an internationally recognised thriller writer, whose work will be familiar to most people who read in this genre, has made several moderately glaring errors.
First, he has somehow managed to create a spy satellite which can hover over one spot on the planet. What keeps satellites in orbit is their speed. If you go outside on a dark night, shortly after sunset, you can occasionally see one passing overhead. They travel in polar orbits, so their path runs from south to north or vice versa, which enable them to cover most of the surface of the planet every twenty-four hours. They’re about 200 miles up, and they travel very fast. The only ‘hovering’ satellites are those in geostationary orbit, and they are over 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth and enable you to watch QVC on your Sky satellite receiver. In fact, they’re not stationary at all, but are travelling at such a high speed that they appear to stay in one position when viewed from the planet’s surface.
            Second, this satellite had a sufficiently high resolution that observers in a secret building in London were able to see the individual hairs on the head of their target. Good trick. Actually, the best of the spy satellites available at the moment have a resolution of about five inches, and the reason for that is physics – a combination of the speed of the satellite, the elevation of about 200 miles (or about the distance between London and Plymouth) and the laws of optics.
            And then he had this same hovering, ultra-high resolution satellite sending video images back to its base. Another good trick that simply won’t work. The speed of the platform means that video would just be a blur, so all satellites take high resolution still images which can be built up into a composite or even a 3-D representation of the target.
            For the author or anyone else to check these facts on the Internet would have taken about five minutes, but obviously nobody, at any stage of the publication process, had bothered.
            Personally, the moment I find an error as glaring as any of these in a novel, the whole book immediately loses a certain amount of credibility, and it certainly spoils my enjoyment in reading the rest of it. I try to do better in my books, but I have had a few comments in the past that suggest I need to try harder …

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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Big Brother

The potential for intellectual liberation through literacy came into its own with the advent of printing. Anyone could express their ideas on a previously inconceivable scale to an unlimited audience, and literacy took off. Of course the same can be achieved far more efficiently online. We've seen this happen recently with the Arab uprisings and, less impressively, with the London riots.
But the printed word can't be controlled, except through legislation, in the same way that online providers could so easily be censored at the flick of a switch. That's what bothers me. Yes, 1984 has been and gone and Orwell's dystopian warnings proved hugely misplaced. But if he were alive today, I suspect he might be issuing the same kind of dire warnings.

Of Course There Is A Future For Books

by Matt Lynn

Leigh, I think people get too excited about the technology - and many publishers in particular think about this as a technological rather than commercial challenge. E-books are just a slightly different form of paper, plus a different distribution system. All this stuff about enhanced e-books, pictures, audio, etc, is all nonsense. The book will still be the book, just as the song is still the song, whatever the format. That's why I find it strange that so many writers are so hostile. Printers, I can understand. But writers? I don't get it.

Is there a future for books?

Totally agree with Matt - it really doesn't matter what the medium is, as long as people keep reading. But there is another concern that e-readers raise... because the technology allows for images, 3D images, moving images, story games, sound effects... and voice overs. Will we shortly all be listening to books through headphones? Are we racing towards a post-literate society? Stories began with an oral tradition, after all.  As I wrote recently in Crime Time, I believe the story will survive. I'm not so sure about books.

Navigating the Changes

by Matt Lynn

Leigh raises some interesting points. I think the big question is what happens to bookshops. I suspect the really good specialist shops will survive. But WH Smith? Or Waterstone's? I dunno. There are mass-market retailers, and they are perfectly good at what they do but if 30% of your sales disappear it is hard to stay in business. And of course if there is no bookshop in your local town, it increases the incentive to download instead. That is what I mean by a dynamic process. Most people are still only looking at the first round effects - but it is the second-round that will be really interesting.

But is this really a problem for writers? I don't think so. True, we will have to be more savvy about marketing, but most of us already are - certainly here on the Curzon blog.

A changing market place

Charlie Rice raises an important point when he mentions in one of his comments here that he is "forced to go to B&N as the smaller stores have closed." Matt talks glibly of a further 30% of sales online, but what's the tipping point? Can bookshops afford to lose another 30% of their dwindling sales?
Once the bookshops have gone, where's the market place for physical books? Buying online, is purchasing a physical book so very different to downloading an e-book - with its immediate delivery at a vastly reduced cost to the consumer? If (perhaps I should say when) the dedicated bookstores disappear, the industry producing physical books will collapse.  Will successful authors of the future be those best able to manoeuvre their way through the online jungle?  Will creativity be less important to the writer of the future than expertise in search engine optimisation?

Not A Complete Dodo

by Matt Lynn

I suspect Leigh is not a complete dodo. I think the interesting thing is that after this Xmas, the Kindle is going to be seen as a big and permanent part of the books industry, rather than just as add-on, or as a niche market. Every industry is dynamic. So let's say, for example, that e-books take 30% of the reading market. How do writers, publisher,  and bookshops, the three traditional arms of the industry, respond to that?

Spot the dodo

Posted by Leigh Russell
I feel uneasily excited about the sales of my books on kindle. Last year my e-sales, small as they are, outdid the print sales of my books. Sales are gratifying in themselves, since they mean people are actually reading the books. The % authors receive on e-sales is far higher than on physical books as the publisher has no further costs once the 'book' is available online. So in money terms, royalties on the physical and e-books are not very different.  And in terms of revenue, it's far better to sell say 100,000 books @ £1 than 1,000 book at £5.  Scale that up, and the big names must be raking in millions on e-books at promotional prices.
Agreed e-books open up new possibilities. Small independent publishers like mine don't have the clout or funds to get books into supermarkets, or on the telly (I know, my books were never going to reach those dizzy heights, but a girl's gotta dream...). E-books level the playing field to some extent.  Death Bed is on the 12 Days of Christmas list along with PD James and Peter James. Where else could that happen? (OK, on the shelves at Harrogate Festival, but seriously, where else?)
I take your point that many traditional publishers are set in their ways, viewing e-books as a way of promoting sales of physical books, rather than an end in themselves.  Without physical books, authors can upload books themselves.  Many do. Where does that leave publishers, unless they embrace the change? And what is their role if they do?
In my case, the complete opposite seems to be the case as my publisher is (fortunately!) more e-savvy than I am. That isn't typical. I'm the dodo here, not my publisher. Uploading and negotiating with amazon doesn't interest me. It sounds like a lot of hassle.  Amazon wouldn't offer me a better deal than my publisher gives, and my publishers are great people to work with.
The physical book has had its day and like I said, I'm feeling uneasily excited. But I'm not ready to get an e-reader yet... one day... some day... maybe...

To Kindle Or Not?

by Matt Lynn

I'm surprised that Leigh doesn't have a Kindle (see below). Leigh, you should get one right away. They are magnificently designed, and I don't think you can really understand what impact they are going to have on the book business until you have tried one out. For writers, there isn't any question that e-books are a great invention, opening up new sources of readers, and new revenue streams, and providing a forum for innovation. The interesting question, actually, is whether you want your books to be published by a traditional publisher, or whether you want to go with one of the new e-book publishers like Endeavour Press, or do it yourself. One of my worries about traditional publishers is that they sell too much on price as well as only paying a 25% royalty. 99p seems too cheap to me for a whole novel, and if you are only getting 25% of that, it isn't a great deal. Too many of the publishers see e-books as a promotional tool rather than a business in itself....and that is a big mistake.

Is your interest kindled?

Posted by Leigh Russell
I wonder where other followers of this blog stand on ereaders. I'm in two minds. I like physical books, and haven't got an ereader. At the same time, I can't help feeling pleased when I see how well my books are selling on kindle. All have reached Number 1 on the Bestseller list for thrillers, and are selling even more as ebooks than in print. In fact my publisher recently decided to bring my latest title out as an 'ebook original' five months before the physical book hits the shelves in May 2012. It seems to have paid off as Death Bed was promptly selected as 1 of just 35 thrillers placed on amazon's 12 Days of Christmas promotion @ 99p. I'm almost tempted to buy a kindle myself... So where are you on this? As Hamlet might say, if the B was missing from the keyboard,
"To e or not to e... "

Leigh Russell writes the bestselling UK crime series featuring Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. Leigh’s new book Death Bed is on kindle and available in print 2012. Details of all Leigh’s books can be found on

Friday, 23 December 2011

The perfect Christmas present

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

As most people know, Christmas has got virtually nothing to do with Christianity. In the early days of the Church, the fledgling religion faced competition from all sides, and one of their biggest problems was trying to combat paganism and other faiths, and particularly to subdue their long established festivals and religious days. The 25th of December was one of these, an important pagan celebration known as the Festival of the Unvanquished Sun, and rather than try to compete with it, the early Church simply hijacked it, decreeing in the mid-fourth century that that day was the birthdate of Jesus Christ.
            That's the historical reality, if you like, but you could also argue that no matter what the truth is of the founder of the Christian religion, Christmas today has got virtually nothing to do with Christianity, but for entirely different reasons. It's been turned into an almost entirely commercial event, with the first offers for the festive season appearing in the shops as early as October, and sometimes even in August and September. According to one statistic I saw – and like most statistics it is highly suspect – as much as thirty per cent of the British population will incur significant debts that they cannot afford to repay over this holiday season, because of the perceived need to buy presents for relatives that they otherwise wouldn't see, and might even dislike, and to purchase prodigious quantities of food which will force everyone to subsist on a diet that consists almost entirely of turkey for the weeks following the holiday.
            The subject of presents always causes a certain amount of amusement. My uncle in law – in other words, my wife's uncle – invariably buys us a box of biscuits, so the only thing we don't know before we open the present is exactly which brand he's selected this year. We don't really know why he bothers wrapping it. As a gift, it would make more sense if we ate biscuits, but we don't. We normally buy him a bottle of Scotch, which is equally predictable, and easy, and we don't wrap it. The problem comes when trying to buy presents for people that you don't know, and who you might only have met once or twice in the past.
            This year will be the last we spend in the house my mother-in-law owned, because next year it will be sold, and so by a process almost of elimination, it was decided that there would be a final family get-together on Christmas Day in that property. This meant buying additional tables and chairs, not to mention a positive mountain of food because it's not just the immediate family members who will be coming – it's the extended lot as well, and that means Christmas lunch for about seventeen.
            And you can't have Christmas lunch without Christmas presents, and that's been our problem. Just what do you buy for a fifty-year-old man who you've met once? We don't know if he drinks or smokes or has some other, less socially acceptable, vice that we could cater for, and we have no idea what he watches on TV or the cinema, or listens to in the car, so we can't even buy him a DVD film or a CD. And what about a fifteen-year-old boy? Actually, that might be easier. Twenty fags and half a bottle of Scotch would probably hit the spot, no matter what his parents might think.
            At least for my wife and me, it's a lot easier. This year, just like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and so on, we buy each other neither a present nor a card. Really, really easy. Then we each go out and if we see something we fancy, we buy it for ourselves.
            That way, we can be absolutely certain that at least one of the Christmas presents we receive will be exactly what we want, even if three days after Christmas we're taking everything else round to the nearest charity shop in a big bag.
            In fact, I have a feeling we might have stumbled upon the perfect way to buy Christmas presents: buy absolutely nothing for anybody else, and just buy yourself whatever it is you want. And, of course, tell all your friends and relatives to do exactly the same, because for me, personally, there's a limit to the number of tins of biscuits and pairs of amusing socks that I can cope with.

You can contact me at:

The Return Of The Retro Action Thriller

By Chris Darnell

A “backwards” action thriller, you ask?  Why would we want a return to that?  A thriller of times-past, of action in a time of at least 15 to 20 years ago? Why, exactly do we need this?  Let me post a thought. Because action thrillers need to offer change, just like the seasons of the year.  They should provide the opportunity to look into the recent past and not just be influenced by contemporaneous events.  We need a return to the retro action thriller.

There are many terrific action thrillers available today, and a lot of them have heat and high technology built into their DNA.  The pages burn with the hostile climate and unremitting heat of the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and other countries with a name ending in “-stan”.  The heroes and heroines use the latest technology in their struggle against the agents of corruption or militant Islam.  Then there are the accompanying movies and the TV series, which sear these heated images into our brains and dazzle our visual senses with the technology.  We almost need to be wearing our Ray Bans in order to watch them.  But our Ray Bans aren’t 3D.  Pity.  I love them all, mind, the books, movies and the TV series.

But I like change, too. I like the heat, but I like the cold more.  I’m in awe of the technology of today and use and have used quite a bit of it in my work.  But I also have a feel for retro and like to look back, because I’ve lived through it.  Of course the authors of action thrillers mirrored the times in which they lived, but just re-read Alistair MacLean’s The Last Frontier to feel the unforgiving pressure of Hungary’s Cold War winter, and live with Michael Reynolds as he battles the elements to escape the clutches of the dreaded Allamvedelmi Osztaly.  He’s lucky if he has a coat and a pair of winter boots, and he certainly has no technology to help him.  Then take one of those unforgiving, uncertain trips to Berlin with Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin, or with his Bernard Samson in Berlin Game, and you’ll begin to understand how tough it was to be a hero in a Cold War action thriller.  In fact, the issue of hero or no hero didn’t always arise; it was all about getting out of the place alive, with or without the right result.  Because if you didn’t the outcome was incarceration behind the Iron Curtain and a bland denial on the part of Her Majesty’s Government that you even existed.

Which brings me indirectly to my novel, The Return, a retro action thriller in every sense that I’ve been talking about.  It’s low-tech, set within bleak winter landscapes and is authentic.  This is the framework for Paul Stanton’s first outing.  He’s ex-SAS but is not a member of the Killer Elite in the way today’s ex-SAS are often portrayed - he is not a pulp fiction action hero.  Stanton's resourceful, skilled in the art of killing, but he has a soul and is not a Flash Harry.  The setting is 1985-86 and a cripplingly cold Northern Irish winter.  Stanton’s used to the cold, he was in the Falklands, but this winter is something else.  And then factor in the enemy, the Provisional IRA, at the height of their powers, especially down in Bandit Country.  They led the world at that time in the use of improvised explosive devices and left a legacy that has been seen with frightening results in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

So Stanton is up against it and his 1985 technology is not much help.  He gambles on an operation and loses, and is spectacularly “dismissed” and then thrust into the deniable world of Government-sponsored black ops, just like his MacLean and Deighton antecedents.

To tell you more, would, as they say, be to give it all away.  I will just say that the heroine, a beautiful MI5 researcher, is half-English and half-German, and her mother city is Berlin.

It’s a return to Cold War Berlin, and that’s retro.

The Return is available as a Kindle download from all Amazon sites.  See

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

To Kindle Or Not To Kindle?

Chris Darnell's The Return
The first Paul Stanton military thriller

By Chris Darnell

Let me make it clear from the outset: I LOVE books.  Physical books.  Books you can feel and smell.  Books you can pick up and handle lovingly, that make you think again about the enjoyment the words in them gave you whenever it was you read them.  I love them and I always have done and always will.  Ask my wife, my mother, my family, my friends.  And I have many hundreds of them – all lovingly packed into large, airtight containers and stored in my mother’s car-less garage, because I can no longer display them.  I don’t have the bookshelf space nor is there the structural strength in our flat to do so.

I was an avid reader from an early age.  In my mid-teens, when my father gave me sufficient pocket money to subscribe to monthly book publications, I started collecting the various authors published by Heron Books.  Does anyone remember them?  Steinbeck, Conrad, Dickens, the great Russian authors.  I still have them; along with all my first edition Alistair MacLeans and the worn copies of Hammond Innes and Ernest K. Gann - some of the authors my father said I had to read – and my many and much loved John Buchan books, collected from the wonderful second-hand book shops of Edinburgh when I was commanding my battalion there in the late eighties.  They are all in my mother’s garage.

I love books, but I also love my Kindle; and it’s still something of a surprise to me even after six months of ‘electronic reading’, because I thought the ebook format and its reading device might kill or at least dampen my reading enjoyment.  The reality has been quite the opposite.  It’s just great not having to pack and lug around all the books you want to read when you go away or travel anywhere.

So what has this got to do with the great British thriller?  It is somewhat tangential, but in my view the kindle reading experience can enhance the enjoyment of the thriller.  At least that’s what I’ve found.  It does of course depend on the quality of the thriller and the quality of the ebook product, and as I’ve only just started out on my learning path in both these areas, I’m not an authority.

Publishing an ebook might sound simple but it isn’t.  I published The Return in this format because it was the best way at the time to get my thriller into the marketplace where I believed there was an audience for it.  I’m a thorough type of person and as I went through the many iterations of trying to create my ebook I found it frustrating how many errors crept into the transliteration of my word document manuscript.  The interactive menu is critical for an ebook and this, along with spacings and breaks, requires meticulous checking before you go live with it.  But once it is all correctly formatted, then the reading experience is, in my view, fast-paced and page-turning, literally at the click of a Kindle tab, which is how a good thriller should be read.  I seem to read far more quickly with my Kindle than I used to.

But it is the quality of the thriller that is the essence.  If the plot creation is clever and intriguing, the action fast-paced and the characters and settings mysterious, dark, colourful or whatever captures your interest, then it will make you want to turn the pages.  Reading it on a Kindle will not in any way diminish this experience.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The death of the book - again

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

This week, the BBC devoted an hour of prime-time viewing to exploring the birth, history and ultimate death of the book. It was an interesting programme, hosted by Alan Yentob, but also – because it was the BBC, after all – moderately pretentious.
            Two of the authors they interviewed stuck in my mind particularly.
            One did all his writing in a log cabin in the woods where he was at great pains to point out that he had neither a telephone nor Internet access, and from his comments he would probably have been quite pleased if there’d been no electricity either. Presumably, he would have been absolutely delighted if we had to go back to hammers, chisels and slabs of rock. I’ve never been able to understand the attitude some literary authors have that all modern technology is somehow an unwanted impediment which gets in the way and impedes the flow of ideas and creativity between writer and reader.
            The second one was perhaps even more bizarre, or unhinged. One of his proudest possessions was a book which he had eaten. He explained at some length how he had felt compelled to sit down one evening, tear the pages of the book into strips and then chew them thoroughly. And from what I remember, he then unravelled the masticated pages the following day and assembled them into a kind of sculpture. Unless I missed it, he never actually produced an explanation for this bizarre behaviour which made any kind of sense.
            They were, of course, both literary authors.
            Ignoring the loony tunes that Yentob had managed to track down, the programme was in fact quite entertaining. He visited various museums, printing works and the like, and produced a cogent explanation of the way in which the book had evolved. Once ink and parchment had been invented, the earliest type of book was the scroll, the name still enshrined in the way we move from page to page on a computer screen, using the scroll bars or scroll buttons. The problem with that kind of written medium is that it’s sequential, forcing the reader to start at one end and scroll through the entire text until he or she finds the bit that’s needed.
            The next stage was the codex, created by cutting parchment or some other medium into handy sized oblongs and then securing those oblongs along one side with thread or glue. This radical concept allowed the parchment to carry writing on both sides, but also allowed for random access – the reader could go straight to the appropriate page – and this is of course exactly what we have today. Every modern book is actually a form of codex.
            And, inevitably, a bunch of talking heads discussed the likely impact of the ebook on the world of publishing, and came to the predictable conclusion that they really had no idea what was going to happen. One interesting point that was made was that the essence of any book is not the cover or the binding or the typeface or anything physical – it’s the text itself, and the medium used to read it is almost irrelevant. Obvious, certainly, but worth emphasizing. One person likened the text of the book to a piece of music. The track of an album can be downloaded as an MP3 file, purchased on a CD or, if it’s old enough, on vinyl, but ultimately it’s just a stream of data, just as a book is ultimately just a stream of data, and the medium used to play the track or read the text doesn’t matter in the slightest.
            Whatever your views on Kindles and ebooks, I think it’s fairly clear that this method of reading is going to become more and more important as time passes, and within perhaps a couple of years at most, it’s likely that most people will be reading their books electronically rather than as hard copies, for convenience, if nothing else. I don’t know the size of the average reader’s library, but even the cheapest Kindle will hold 1,400 books, which I think is about three times more than I own, and the 3G Kindle can accommodate up to 3,500, which could well be quite literally a lifetime’s reading.
            And I suppose it’s worth just pointing out the other startling advantage of owning a Kindle. If there’s a fire or flood in my house and all my books are destroyed, I have to go out and buy them again. If the dog eats the Kindle, or I pour coffee over it or some other catastrophe strikes, all I have to do is buy a new unit. Every book that I’ve ever bought as a Kindle download will be available to me as soon as I turn on the new machine. You buy a book once but download it as many times as you want, within the same account.
            But the book as a physical object is far from dead. Yentob finished up in a bookstore equipped with a print on demand machine and, in the time it took the guy behind the bar to make him a cappuccino, this large machine had sourced, printed, bound and spat out a copy of Treasure Island. He even had a choice of editions and typefaces.
            So even if you leave your Kindle behind, at least in some coffee bars you can still select a book to enjoy when you get your daily fix of caffeine.

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Friday, 16 December 2011


Advice about writing books is proliferating online, in books and at creative writing courses. My workshops for The Society of Authors and Get Writing at the University of Hertfordshire are always rapidly oversubscribed, sometimes within a day, and on my author channel one of the most viewed videos is the discussion on ‘How to Write a Good Book’. These days it seems that everyone wants to write a book.
An often repeated piece of advice is to “write about what you know”. In terms of fiction, that has always struck me as rather odd because part of the joy of writing is to explore the unknown. Stef Penney had never visited Alaska when she wrote ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ which won the Costa ‘Book of the Year’ prize. How many wizards had Tolkien met? Had Shakespeare experienced the frustrations of being a woman in love with a man who thought she was another man? And when did Kafka become a literate beetle? Literature is full of examples because by definition fiction is made up.
An author’s job is to create a credible world for the reader. But if we only wrote about what we knew, either fantasy books would disappear, or we would discover some surprising facts about their authors! I don’t write fantasy, but murder stories. My novels exploring the motivations of different murderers are all bestsellers - but I never felt the need to kill anyone before I could write the stories. It’s all done through the magic of imagination.
Leigh Russell writes the popular bestselling UK crime series featuring Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. Leigh’s new book Death Bed is one of 35 thrillers on amazon kindle's 12 Days of Christmas promotion @ 99p  also on, and out in print 2012. Details of all Leigh’s books can be found on  

The Worst Christmas Ever

By Richard Jay Parker

One of the great traditions of Christmas is the retail analysis on the news.  One day it's possibly the worst year the high street has ever known and the next it's the best one ever.  This year is certainly going to be a leaner one for a lot of people, however.  But will it really harm to take the retail emphasis off Christmas?

I know lots of people who are staying away from the shops and resisting filling their online baskets/carts to the brim.  With all that pressure off the majority of them are just thankful they made it to the end of another year.  It's been a pretty volatile 2011.

The importance of being surrounded by family and friends seems to be becoming the priority again and that's certainly not a bad thing.  Claustrophobia and petty squabbling aside you've only got to turn on the news again to see there are certainly worst places to be spending Christmas.

In terms of publishing it's been another year of shifting sands.  Technology is still waiting for publishers, agents and writers to catch up.  It's going to take a good while longer by which time technology will have probably moved on again.  But as well as all the headaches it's also an exciting time so there's plenty of challenges to look forward to in 2012.

So, whether you're part of an industry still finding its feet again or a reader reaping the benefits from a new world of instantly available material, I think we can all agree that we all still love the product, irrespective of how it's brought to us.

However you're spending Christmas, I hope you have a good one and a very peaceful 2012.

Vist Richard at:


Friday, 9 December 2011

Kindling enthusiasm

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

Matt has mentioned Kindles in several of his recent blog entries, and in fact so have I, so perhaps it's time to come clean. I never thought I'd say this, but having just humped four boxes of books – a mixture of hard back and paperback – into the back of the car in Andorra, and then unloaded the same boxes at the house in France, I am beginning more and more to appreciate the sheer convenience and flexibility of electronic texts. I've always thought that I would much prefer the physical experience of actually holding a book in my hand, looking at the cover, reading the blurb, and then with a growing sense of anticipation opening it up and beginning to lose myself in somebody else's adventure.
            Of course, I still enjoy doing that, but it was something of a surprise to realize that I could also do almost all that on a Kindle. Again, you can look at the cover – it's monochrome, obviously, but you can still get a good idea of what it looks like – and you get access to the entire contents. The Kindle also remembers exactly where you were in the text when you stopped reading it, so there's no need to turn over the corner of the page or stick in a bookmark or anything like that. And if there's a passage that you want to refer to later, you can add a virtual bookmark to the page, and also add your own notes to the text as well, all without altering the integrity of the original manuscript. Personally, I always get irritated when people mark books, because I just think it's selfish to deface an author's work with your own personal opinions, but with the Kindle it doesn't matter.
            But far and away the biggest single attribute the Kindle has is that it's relieved the strain on my back. When I finish a physical book which I don't think I will want to read again, I put it in a box so that I can take it to a charity shop. The slight problem I have is that I live in Andorra and the charity shops I normally use are in Kent, hence the reason for loading the boxes into the back of the car.
            With the Kindle, all I have to do is delete the entry from the device and the book magically vanishes into the ether. And if I've made a horrible mistake and I've chosen the wrong book, I can simply go to my Kindle account on Amazon and download it again. No more boxes, no more backache.
            And when you also remember that you can load an effectively unlimited number of books onto the device, the further advantages of carrying your entire library in your pocket become very, very clear.
            In fact, it's got to the point where the first thing I look at on Amazon is not the price of the book I'm interested in, or the number of reviews it's had, or its star rating. It's whether or not I can buy it as a Kindle download and, if I can't, I find that in itself very irritating to the extent that it may well sway my purchase decision.
            I've even come to resent the fact that if I buy a hardback or paperback from Amazon, I have to wait a day or two for the book to be delivered to me, whereas if I buy a Kindle download, I can start reading the text within literally about thirty seconds. Talk about convenience?
            This device is so seductive, and so useful, that I genuinely believe that within a very few years almost anyone who reads more than one or two books a year – I personally read about that many every week – will have a Kindle and will use it in preference to buying a physical volume, for all the reasons which I've listed above.
            So does the Kindle mean the death of books? The question's been asked many times before by people who know far more about the publishing industry than I do, and the short snappy answer is that nobody actually knows. Personally, I don't think it does. There are a number of different types of book, especially non-fiction titles which are heavily illustrated, and the Kindle does not handle images particularly well because they are so small and they have to be depicted in varying shades of grey. If you're looking a photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, say, you clearly won't be seeing it at its best on a Kindle. But for novels and other books that most readers will purchase, read once and then discard, the Kindle is absolutely the ideal medium.
            And that, I have to confess, does produce very mixed emotions in me.

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Curl Up With A Friend

By Richard Jay Parker

With Christmas fast approaching most of us will soon be immersed in the hectic activities that lead up to it.  Within a few weeks it will be upon us and, as usual, we'll be exhausted, enjoying the end result and, maybe, we'll be able to briefly relax.

There's always one ritual I make room for during the holidays that I've mentioned in this blog before and that's spending some quality time with my bookshelf.  During the year it leans patiently against the wall largely ignored.  OK there's one portion of it that houses a stack of new books to work my way through but the rest of its contents are scarcely glanced at.

I always like to pull a few favourites off the neglected shelves, flick through them and realise how many books I have that I'd like to read again.  I'll select a few for consumption over the holidays - old friends and guilty pleasures - and if I manage to work through half the stack I'll be happy.

It's a nice opportunity to remind myself of the time when I didn't analyse them so much and thought of them as intriguing objects that fed my imagination.

Am glancing at the shelf now but will resist the urge until I have the time to pay them the proper respect.  There's a few shopping miles to cover before then...

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Sunday, 4 December 2011

What People Actually Read

by Matt Lynn

If you look at the Kindle chart and the traditional charts, you’ll notice something quite interesting. They aren’t at all similar. The UK Kindle chart today is topped by Phil Rickman, who is hardly a household name, followed by Damon Galgut and Kerry Wilkinson. The physical chart is led by the latest Wimpy Kid, followed by Jamie Oliver, Lee Evans and Michael Connolly.

Why is that, I wonder? After all, these are all books. Of course you can probably discount Wimpy Kid and Jamie Oliver. Most kids don’t have e-readers yet and cookbooks aren’t a natural for the Kindle. Even so, if you look at the Kindle charts, the ‘big authors’ don’t do so well. PD James and Kathryn Stockett are in the Top 10 and Patricia Cornwell in the Top 20. But heavily hyped writers like James Paterson don’t really do that well. In my own corner of the market, military adventure, I don’t sell as well as Chris Ryan and Andy McNab in the bookshops, but on Kindle I am regularly out-selling them.

One reason might be that the Kindle audience is slightly different from the mainstream audience. It is probably slightly more male – hence the number of thrillers in the chart – and a bit more techie. It may also be more adventurous in its taste.

But the real reason, I suspect, is because it is a much more level playing field. Some books get more push than others online of course. But going into the Kindle store is nothing like going into a bookshop, and nothing at all like the books section of a supermarket. The choice is vast, there are no in-your-face promotions, and word-of-mouth (in the form of reader reviews) is everywhere.

So what we see on the Kindle chart may well be a far better guide to what people actually want to read. I’m not sure the publishers have quite realised that yet though. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

In Praise Of Book Covers

By Richard Jay Parker

As more and more readers opt for ebooks, the demands on book covers are changing drastically.  Formerly designed to lure unsuspecting readers onto the rocks of unknown authors a book now has to sell itself in thumbnail size.  Images and fonts have to be legible on an Amazon page as it's very often the only bite of the cherry the designer has.

It's always been an art form.  Pulp fiction probably benefited the most by seducing customers with lurid covers and titles.  This was replicated in the eighties when unregulated home video distributors went right over the top packaging movies with the most outrageous cover images imaginable.  In the UK many movies were banned and the covers were partly to blame.

Great covers are crucial for new authors.  If a reader hasn't heard of you or your book then the cover has to engage them.  Even if the reader doesn't buy there and then, a memorable cover and title will lodge itself in the memory.

With 21st Century demands the book cover has to tick more boxes than just catching readers' eyes in shops.  But here's a cool site to remind ourselves of an era when book covers ruled the earth.  It's run by a guy named Jim Barker and is great fun.

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Windows 7, anyone?

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

I'm in something of a state of limbo at the moment, in the unusual position of not having a deadline looming. I've delivered the pre-edited manuscript of the next 'James Becker' book to Transworld, and so there's nothing else I can do until the editor gets back to me with his comments and any feedback from professional readers. My next deadline isn't until next year, when I'm scheduled to deliver the second Simon & Schuster novel in mid-February. I know that actually that's only about ten weeks away, but because it's next year, it still feels somehow distant.
            That book, like the first in the 'Jack Steel' series, The Titanic Secret, is written against a background of real events, which makes the book both easier and more difficult to write at the same time. It’s easier, because I have a fixed series of real-world occurrences which in themselves will dictate the timescale and the major events to form the basic plotline, but more difficult because I have to weave my story around these fixed points, which cannot be moved in any way – the date, the place, and the events themselves have to be described exactly as they took place. The good news is that I'm already about a third of the way through the first draft, and I should have the book finished by about the end of January, which will give me roughly two weeks to hack it about and knock it into some kind of shape.
            And then, I think, I'll have about six months to write the third book for Simon & Schuster, title and subject entirely undecided at the moment, and by that time I will also be working on the next Transworld novel, so the middle of 2012 is probably going to be quite a busy time.
            As regular readers of this blog will know, the fourth 'James Becker' novel – The Nosferatu Scroll – was released as a mass-market paperback late in November, and the initial sales figures look pretty good. In fact, there's already talk of a reprint being ordered, which is good news.
            I'm also tinkering away with another couple of ideas, just in case I have any spare time. One is non-fiction, but concerns a subject which seems to have become rather less popular over the last few years, so that might be quite difficult to sell. But precisely because it's non-fiction, I don't have to write the entire book before my agent can begin offering it to publishers: a detailed synopsis and an example chapter should be enough to see if there's any interest out there.
            The second idea is pure escapism: a new field, with new characters and, almost inevitably, a new nom de plume. But that's a lot more work, because I'll need to complete the first novel in the series and have a pretty good idea of where the rest of the books are going to be heading before my agent can try and sell it.
            And, of course, I have to be sure that I can find the time to write them.
In this regard, I seem to be actively hindered by Microsoft. A few months ago I purchased a brand new laptop, a Hewlett Packard Pavilion which offered remarkable value for money and a very high specification: a fast quad core processor, a 750GB hard disk, 6GB of RAM, USB 3, fingerprint reader and all the rest. It came as standard with Windows 7 Home Premium, and that seems to be the problem. It's better than Vista, but almost anything is better than Vista, and it's certainly not anything like as good as Windows XP.
The particular problem I'm facing is that almost every time I change to a different application – when I open a browser to check something on the Internet, for example – the operating system hangs and displays the irritating message 'Not responding' next to the name of the new application. That state of affairs can last for anything from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes, and as everyone who uses a computer knows, two minutes spent staring at a frozen screen can seem like an eternity.
            I've trawled the Internet looking for fixes, and there doesn't seem to be one, despite the huge number of sites and blogs that deal with the issue, so I presume it's something I'm just going to have to live with until Windows 8 arrives sometime next year. Assuming, of course, that the new operating system will be an improvement on the old one, which is not something you can take for granted when Microsoft is involved.
            In the meantime, has anybody got any ideas?

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