Monday, 25 June 2012

Cold Arms Syndrome

By Richard Jay Parker

Was chatting to a Kindle convert on Friday night.  When people get enthusiastic about their new reading devices it's usually because of their ability to save space in their suitcase or the speed in which they can get hold of books by their favourite authors.

CAS (Cold Arm Syndrome) was something I hadn't considered.  When in bed (particularly during winter) the reader in question said their Kindle not only saved them having to support a weighty book but also meant they could dispense with having to have their arms outside the covers and exposed to the cold air.

They'd perfected the art of lying on their side and touching the kindle through the sheet to turn the page.

I love real books but I'm also all for Kindles and this was certainly something that improved the quality (and warmth) of their reading experience.  Not being a fan of pyjamas myself I would have been a hypocrite to suggest them.

Perhaps Kindle should use CAS as a new angle to sell them.

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

TEDx and the craft of writing

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

Rather than relying on my usual jar of instant, I occasionally drive down the valley and have a coffee in one of the local establishments. Although this costs money, obviously, my wife is keen to encourage me to do this because, rather than just ambling into the kitchen with a mug in my hand and a hopeful expression on my face, it gets me physically moving away from the computer. Quite some distance away from the computer, in fact, as it’s about a ten minute drive to the closest café.
            The one we normally visit is called 5 Sentits (Catalan for ‘5 Senses’, just in case you’re not familiar with this old language) and it’s one of the most pleasant cafés I know, full of fascinating gadgets and pieces of kitchen equipment that my wife frequently decides she simply cannot live without for another hour, so our visits there are often both lengthy and expensive.
            On our last visit, two things happened. First, the young Catalan owner of the establishment, Pere Armengol, talked me into giving a brief lecture at the end of the month during the next TEDx broadcast. You can find out full details on, but it’s basically a series of lectures broadcast internationally and streamed to specific venues. In the case of Andorra, 5 Sentits will be showing all of the English language lectures at the coming event, and to keep the audience quiet in between broadcasts, Pere has organised a couple of local talks as well, one of them mine. It’s the first time I’ve done one of these, so it should be interesting.
            The second thing was more directly related to writing. Behind one of the banquettes in the café there’s always a collection of magazines of various types, mostly Spanish, but with a few French and English as well. I was idly leafing through these when I came across a writing magazine, in English. The cover was familiar enough to me – I have a subscription to it – but I hadn’t seen that particular issue. When I looked at it more closely, I realized why: it was ten years old, published in 2002.
            So while my wife pottered about, looking at the Porsche steak knives and numerous other gadgets that I really hoped she wouldn’t find a home for, I leafed through the magazine, checking out the writing scene as it was a decade ago.
            And what was interesting was how little things seemed to have changed. Obviously writers’ problems are perennial, which I suppose is what you’d expect. There were articles dealing with writer’s block, others suggesting new ways of finding inspiration when your novel has ground to a messy halt in a metaphorical muddy field, warnings against vanity publishers, and others extolling the virtues of the brand-new technology of POD – print on demand.
            There was, predictably enough, no mention at all of electronic books, because the first release of Amazon’s Kindle was still five years away, and there was no hint at all of the turmoil that would be enveloping the world of publishing within quite a short time.
            But apart from this obvious omission, the magazine could almost have been printed yesterday, as long as I made a suitable mental adjustment whenever a price was quoted, which started me wondering whether there really was anything new under the sun when it comes to the craft of writing.
            And in particular whether any of the latest crop of software programs were of the slightest use to an author. I freely admit that, just as my wife is a sucker for kitchen gadgets, because she’s an extremely good cook, I’m a sucker for software programs that promise to make my life easier. I’ve bought and tried several in the past, and they have been, almost without exception, either removed from my computer in very short order, or at best left there in some dark corner of the hard drive to be used infrequently, if at all.
            The problem, I think, is that when I’m writing I try and hold the entire story in my head and just basically regurgitate it onto the page. OK, it’s a little more complicated than that, but I tend to think in a kind of linear fashion, starting at the beginning and working my way through to the end. I don’t normally do plot outlines, character descriptions, locations and so on as separate entities, which is what most of these programs seem to want me to do. I have a feeling that if I started using one seriously, I would end up in a kind of filing cabinet nightmare, surrounded by electronic notes about timing, characters’ dates of birth and physical descriptions and all the rest of it, and I wouldn’t actually have any kind of story.
            Of course, it’s probably just me, being something of a Luddite and refusing to embrace the new technology, but I honestly think that I work better when I start by opening up Word, create a new file and then just write the blasted book.
            Anybody else feel the same way?

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Saturday, 9 June 2012

The stars might lie but the numbers never do

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

For some reason, a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading over the last week or so have involved numbers, and I don’t just mean the rating of my various books on Amazon. Some have implied bad news – of which more later – and others quite the reverse.
            Let’s start with some bald figures. In the United Kingdom, back in 2001, roughly 110,000 new books were published, and in all a total of some 140 million books were sold. If we then jump forward to 2010, the number of new books released jumps to about 150,000, and around 229 million sales were recorded. So that’s good news, obviously: more books had been published in 2010 and far more books were sold.
            Well, not exactly. Certainly you can’t argue with the numbers. In that period of time, both sales and the volume of books produced increased. The trouble is that the second date was 2010, a mere two years ago, but in that time things have changed quite considerably.
            According to Nielsen Bookscan, the sales of physical books – hardback and paperback – fell significantly in 2011, and are continuing to fall. To put some numbers to that, in the run-up to Christmas that year 10% less books were sold than in the previous year. In 2011 book sales overall fell by over 7% to just over 209 million over the previous year, and the value of those sales also fell by over 6% to just under £1.6 billion. That still sounds like a hell of a lot of money for the entire industry – it’s equivalent to the bonuses paid out to several bankers, certainly – but in reality that was the lowest amount spent on printed books since 2005. And every indication is that the figures for 2012 will be even worse.
            So doom and gloom are all around us, obviously.
            Actually, no, not really. There are probably two principal reasons for the drop-off in sales of books in Britain. The first is quite obvious. Thanks to a startling combination of crass stupidity and naked greed on the part of the banking industry, mainly the American banking industry, the world is now in the grip of a serious recession, and people in all walks of life and in every country are having to consider quite seriously how they spend their money. Books, though undeniably important and, in my opinion, perhaps the cheapest form of decent entertainment available anywhere, are not an essential purchase for anybody.
            The second reason is actually a one word answer: Kindle. This cheap and convenient device is, I genuinely believe, the single most important advance in the history of publishing since the invention of the printing press. It really is that significant.
The Kindle isn’t the only ebook reader, obviously, but it’s probably the most important because it’s sold and promoted by the world’s largest retailer, Amazon. Another number: Amazon’s market capitalization is roughly $80 billion. To put that into perspective, the annual turnover of the Penguin Group is about 1.5% of that figure.
            So while sales of physical books are clearly declining, the number of electronic books sold, and the devices to read them on, are increasing rapidly. At the moment, ebooks comprise about 20% of the English language book market, and this number is growing fast. That means that out of every ten books sold, two of them will be Kindle downloads, or the equivalent on other platforms. But mainly they’ll be Kindles.
            According to YouGov, over the Christmas period in 2011, 1.33 million ebook readers were purchased, 92% of them being Kindles, meaning that in the United Kingdom some one in every forty adults either bought one for themselves or to give away as a present. That’s a startling number, but it’s backed up by ebook sales figures for the same period.
            Hachette reported that they sold 100,000 ebooks on Christmas Day alone, while HarperCollins claimed the same sales figure for both the UK and international markets combined. Random House reported 300,000 ebooks sold over the festive season. So from just these three retailers, well over half a million ebooks were sold in that very short period.
            And that, I believe, is a very good indicator of future trends. One of the many, many advantages of an ebook reader over the purchase of a conventional book is immediacy. You can sit there in bed, access the Amazon website, see a book you like, buy it and start reading it, all in well under a minute. And in most cases it will cost you about the same as a cup of coffee.
Compare that to the ‘old way’ of buying a book – getting out the car, driving to a shopping centre or high street, finding a bookshop, eventually tracking down the novel you want to read, then handing over a £10 note and getting a remarkably little change before driving back home – and the advantages are startlingly obvious. And a basic Kindle costs about the same as a dozen full price novels, so it’s cheap by any standards.
            Finally, I mentioned bankers a couple of times in this blog, and I’ve been talking numbers as well. A banker friend of mine – he’s now retired and, if he had his way, he would have most of the current crop of idiots running the banking system taken out and shot – pointed out to me how little idea most people, including politicians, have about the size of the economic problems we face. And in particular what the word ‘trillion’ actually means.
            He produced quite a neat way of explaining it. Start with a concept that everybody will be able to appreciate. Suppose you’re about to buy a new house, and it’s going to cost £250,000, a quarter of a million pounds, a big number, but one that’s easy to comprehend. Now suppose that you decide to buy four such houses, not just one, so your total outlay will be £1 million. And further suppose that you’re going to buy all four houses on the same day, so on that date you will spend £1 million. Now comes the interesting bit. Let’s also suppose that your finances will permit you to buy four such houses every working day of the year. There are roughly 250 working days in a year, so your spending will amount to £250 million in that year. You should be so lucky!
            So the question is: if you maintain that rate of spending, buying £1 million worth of property every working day, how many years will it take before you’ve spent £1 trillion? Answers on a postcard, please.
            Let me put you out of your misery. If you spent money at the rate of £1 million a day, £250 million every year, it would take you 4,000 years before you’d spent £1 trillion.
So what?
So as of May 2012, the total public debt of the United States of America was just under $16 trillion, and has been increasing by well over $1 trillion every year since 2008.
And that gives some idea of the mountain the world is going to have to climb over the next few years.

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Friday, 8 June 2012

Flood Tide

By Richard Jay Parker

It seems to be the lot of writers to spend long months - sometimes years - waiting around for projects to take off and then have several come to fruition at the same time.  This leaves them yearning for the spare hours they had previously to try and cram all the editing in.

I find myself in just this situation but you certainly won't hear me complaining.  After a few frustrating close calls book 2 is now scheduled for publication in 2013 by exciting new crime imprint Exhibit A in the UK and the US.  It's a few months away but I know there will be plenty to do in the meantime.  I understand, like STOP ME, edits will be minor.  I'm a pretty brutal editor of my own work so it looks like my own savagery has paid off.

I'll have a steep promo wall to climb, however, so I'll have my work cut out when I'm not smashing the keyboard.

I'm going to use this blog as well as Facebook and Twitter to keep anyone interested up-to-date about the whole process as well as work on book 3 which is already underway.

On top of this I've a few other writing and editing projects to keep me occupied so the second half of the year looks to be even busier than the first.

Who needs a weekend off anyway?

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Friday, 1 June 2012

Ebooks, again

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

Most people involved in the world of publishing, in whatever capacity, are worried. Authors are concerned that their contracts may not be renewed because of uncertainty by the publishers over the level of sales likely to be generated. Publishers are eyeing the seemingly inexorable rise of the ebook with something akin to alarm, and probably wondering if there will still be such a thing as a publishing house at the end of the next decade or so. And agents, who are essentially stuck in the middle of this, acting as a buffer between authors and publishers, really have no idea which way to turn. Or what to do. Or what business model they should be embracing.
            My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that publishing houses and agents are going to be around for quite a long time to come. Despite the increasing popularity of ebooks, there are a number of book types which will simply not easily translate to the Kindle or to any other electronic reading device. Cookery books are an obvious example. You simply cannot view the pictures on a Kindle in anything like the same detail as you can on the printed page, and pictures are what sell that kind of book. The same applies to what used to be called ‘coffee table books’ – large format and lavishly illustrated books covering a whole range of subjects – and also most books which include detailed diagrams or photographs, such as textbooks.
            An author I was talking to recently suggested that within about ten years it would be the norm that most novels would be published on the Kindle as the principal medium, because novels are essentially ‘read once and give away’ books, and producing them in an electronic format means that no trees have to die in order for them to be read. Most non-fiction and reference books, he thought, would probably continue to be printed as physical volumes. He may well be right.
            Most people will be aware that readers these days have more choice than ever before, but exactly how much more choice is quite surprising. At the Digital Book World conference in January this year, it was pointed out by one of the speakers that more books had been published that week than in the whole of 1950. In America, over three million new printed titles were produced in 2010, and an almost uncountable number of electronic titles. Readers really are spoiled for choice.
            And that is one area which will, I think, become even more important in the future. How exactly does anyone choose a new book to read? My agent likens it to walking into a vast bookshop and seeing perhaps a million books stacked on the shelves, few of them coming from publishing houses that you recognize, and even fewer bearing the name of an author that you have ever heard of. How do you decide which book to buy?
            His point is that the only guarantee anyone has of the quality of a particular book is the name of the publisher. And for a commercial publisher to take on a new author, both the publishing house and the literary agent involved have to be convinced that he or she can write something that other people will want to read. Because unless they are convinced, they won’t issue a contract for the book or pay an advance.
            And that might lead to a kind of two-tier publishing world on the Kindle – books from independent authors and unknown publishers selling for about £1 to £2, and ‘proper’ books from commercial publishers being sold for perhaps twice that amount. That does not, of course, mean that sales of commercially-produced novels will be higher than the independent efforts. Cost is still a factor. A book selling for £1 or £2 is a genuine impulse purchase – it’s less than the price of a cup of coffee, and even if it’s complete rubbish, it really doesn’t matter – but a book at £4 or £5 is a different matter.
            Which brings me neatly to this week’s special offer: as part of a Fathers’ Day promotion, Simon & Schuster are offering the Kindle version of The Titanic Secret for a mere £1.99, instead of the usual price of £4.99, from 11th to 25th June, and there’ll be a marketing campaign as well.

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