It’s a Book, Jim, But Not as We Know It

I’ve long been interested in how our relationship with text is changing as the means of producing it changes. For many people, the term ‘ebook’ means the same text you read in a book, displayed on the screen of a eReader, an iPad or a computer.

For designers, illustrators and computer programmers, and even film-makers, it’s something that potentially means much more than that. You can already see this revolution happening in the form of websites and experimental books on things like the iPad.

Here’s the best example of this potential that I’ve seen so far – demonstrated by Mike Matas on TED (the video’s less than six minutes long). Now, if you just want to read a novel, you wouldn’t need all of these functions of course, but as a tool for passing on information – for teaching, it’s superb. Check out the comments below the video, from all the tech-heads who think this doesn’t go far enough. Some people are never happy!

A Long-Term Commitment

Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.

What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.

If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.

As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.

Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.

Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.

As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.

This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .

And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.

In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.

The Punishment Should Fit the Crime

The language and subject matter in this post may not be suitable for younger readers. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide.

I’m thoroughly sick of the callous and arrogant way the Catholic Church has dealt with the overwhelming number of cases of child abuse by their people. Not only have they permitted it to happen, created an environment where it could continue to happen after its victims had cried out for help – and the perpetrators had been named – but now they use utterly pathetic language in response to the barrage of proof that those in power allowed this to happen on their watch.

The Cloyne Report, the latest uncovering of what has been a long line of outrages, has been met with language from the church authorities that sickens me to the stomach. The Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s representative in Ireland is apparently ‘very distressed’ by the report, but this is after he had told the Commission compiling it that he was ‘unable to assist you in this matter’.

I’ve heard other representatives of the church use terms like ‘mismanagement’; ‘very disappointed’; ‘unfortunate’. They have implied that this shielding of paedophiles was down to some kind of muddle, a bureaucratic error, a breakdown in communications. I heard one priest talking about it yesterday evening on the radio. He said that the situation had been allowed to get so bad because a few ‘nincompoops’ in certain positions failed to act appropriately, which wouldn’t have happened if some of the more ‘saintly’ people who deserved to hold these positions had done so. He actually used the words ‘nincompoops‘. And ‘saintly‘.

I wanted to smash the radio. Yes there seems to be some kind of muddle here. Some breakdown in communications. It seems some of these pious fuckers need to come back down to earth. We are talking about the brutal raping and buggering of children. If one man had been caught doing this in public, he’d be condemned outright by society – and by the Catholic Church.

If this was done to one of my children, it would take all my self-control not to beat that man to death. It’s hard for me to imagine how the parents of these children could have dealt with what happened, never mind the children themselves.

Instead of swift and firm justice, what we have is a case of dozens, probably hundreds of priests over the last few decades (we can only guess how many before that) using their privileged positions to commit these horrific and violent acts against children, being found out, and instead of being dragged out into the light as they should have been, being hidden, moved and protected by the Catholic Church so they could do it all over again.

This is not a fucking muddle, or a bureaucratic error. The representatives of this organization raped children.

Then they were deliberately protected by their superiors, allowing it all to happen again. That too, is a shocking crime. They abused their power, used it to defy the enforcers of our laws, – who played their own part in this abhorrent process – and stuck two fingers up at their own parishioners, the people who looked to them for moral guidance. Moral guidance from an organization that shelters paedophiles. The very thought of it. Jesus Christ, where are you now?

Let me state my position on this, in case it isn’t clear already. The men who committed these violent acts, should be in prison, serving sentences that are consistent with the terrible damage they have done to their many victims. And the men who conspired to protect them from the law, should also be in prison. Not given a telling off, or sent on a sabbatical, not defrocked, or retired – imprisoned. And I don’t mean a nice civilized prison, I mean the type for perpetrators of violent crimes, where they belong.

I’m not a Catholic, nor have I ever been one, but both my parents came from devout Catholic families. For their own reasons, they chose not to indoctrinate their children into any religion, and I’ve been grateful for that decision for a long time. I don’t believe in a God, but I have nothing against those who do. I firmly believe that everybody has to make their own decision about that kind of thing.

But if you are a Catholic, I think it’s time you took a long look at your church, and asked yourself if this is an organization you want to be a part of. Yes, there are many fine men in the clergy (no women, obviously, but that’s a whole different rant), but it’s not enough. Not when the bosses of the church are fucking around the way they are.

Every Catholic should be standing up in church and demanding of their priest that this issue be handled with the utmost seriousness that it deserves. Every decent priest who is sickened by what has happened needs to stand up to his masters and say so – publicly. And if the bishops, and the archbishops, and the Papal Nuncio and the Pope don’t start taking responsibility for what has been happening, what may still be happening, then you either align yourself with these people or leave the church.

And finally, the government has to stop behaving as governments have in the past, submitting to the power of the church. This organization runs most of the schools in this country. They claim it is their place to lecture our children on spirituality, on morality. This from the people who refuse to accept their own responsibility in events that have left thousands of children to grow up physically and mentally scarred, and stained the very character of our country.

This shit has to stop. Now.

Patrick Ness Asks Us to Shout

I’m not to going to say too much about this, as Patrick says it so well himself. If you love books, you should listen to this; it’s his speech on winning the Carnegie medal for ‘Monsters of Men’ (an excellent conclusion to a brilliant trilogy – I’ll get to posting something on it later).

He’s an excellent speaker, and his speech is an angry but articulate attack on politicians who say they value young people’s desire and ability to read, but then take away the means for those young people to do it. Have a listen, and join him in his pissed-offness.

A Swift Reading

Judging by my last write-up on Peter Falk, and on this one, I’ve really got to get my posts out quicker. On Friday, the 1st of July (yes, that’s over a week ago), Maedhbh and I were in Trim to take part in an event for the Trim Swift Festival.

The festival celebrates the life, works and the legacy of Jonathan Swift, the man who wrote – among other things – the wonderful ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. The bit we were taking part in was a public reading of the entire novel, over three days, in aid of the charity, Aware. It took fifteen hours in total, with each reader having their turn to sit in a car on Market Street. You paid to take part, and people paid to listen, and readers got a certificate when they finished their bit. It wasn’t exactly Live Aid, but it was a nice idea, and one I think could be done on a bigger, more refined scale.

I read the full novel years ago, when I was going through a classics phase – I had a longer attention span back then, partly because I didn’t have kids, partly because I didn’t have a television, and partly because I was working twelve-hour night-shifts in London as a security guard.

Reading a small piece of it again reminded me how much I enjoyed it. It’s very sharp, and laugh-out-loud funny in places. If you’ve only heard about Lemuel Gulliver’s travels to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, then you’ve only heard half the story. There’s also a floating city full of scientists and artists, and a race of very civilized horses. Those bits tend to get left out of the abridged versions of the story. Like most books from that time, modern readers often find the original ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ a bit wordy and convoluted (I know I did), but it’s smart, witty, satirical, absurd, and occasionally obscene. And many of the things he was taking the piss out of then are still around now. Society obviously didn’t get the message.

If you haven’t read the full novel already, find yourself a copy, take a breath, and plunge in.

Just One More Thing . . .

Any regular viewer of ‘Columbo’ waited for that moment, those words: ‘Just one more thing . . .’. The moment you knew the scruffy, shambling, diffident detective was about to nail his suspect to the wall with a damning piece of evidence.

It normally came after a drawn-out process, as the murderer went from being dismissive of this rumpled, insignificant little man, to experiencing a sense of dread that this flat-foot was a lot smarter than he seemed.

It was great television.

About two weeks ago, Peter Falk, the actor who played the detective, died at the age of 83. He played a whole range of roles in films and television, including the storytelling grandad in the brilliant ‘The Princess Bride’ – but it was ‘Columbo’ that made him immortal. And it was his character that made it work. We were riveted, not by a ‘whodunnit’, but by a ‘howdhecatchem’.

There are certain stories I wish I’d been present for when they were pitched to the publishers or producers. Imagine what it must have been like to try and sell the ideas for films like ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’, ‘Delicatessen’, or ‘Twelve Angry Men’. ‘Columbo’ falls into that category. Picture the scene:

‘Hang on, hang on a minute. You’re telling me, we start by seeing the criminal carrying out the act. We know who it is and how they did it from the very start? And what . . . then we watch this scruffy little guy with a perplexed expression, a rumpled coat and a glass eye, try to figure it out? No good-looking leading man? No gorgeous, feisty female sidekick? No perpetual sexual tension? What are you, nuts?’

It’s amazing it ever got made. And yet every episode was an engrossing mystery story, carried by an iconic character.

Rest in peace, Peter, and thanks for the entertainment.

Edda and The Avatar Chronicles

Conor Kostick is a good friend and the author of the excellent ‘Avatar Chronicles’. To celebrate the launch of ‘Edda’, the third book in the series, Conor’s doing a ‘blog tour’ – a series of pieces on different blogs, finishing up on mine. Today, I’m posting a video of the two of us having a chat about ‘Edda’ and some of the ideas Conor has woven into the series.

This was filmed in the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, where we both teach courses from time to time. It didn’t go quite according to plan . . .

We were both on tight work schedules and had to put this together in a bit of a rush, with the help of Donna Sorenson from the O’Brien Press. The sound’s a little fuzzy, and Conor was unexpectedly joined by his very active two-year old daughter, as his partner had a doctor’s appointment.

Conor and I talk about books and ideas and stuff on a regular basis, but trying to keep our discussion YouTube-friendly  – you know; short, concise and to the point – was something of a challenge. Even when we’re not tired, a tad hassled and being distracted occasionally by a pottering toddler, we are prone to indulging in a bit of mental wandering.

Conor’s writing is always challenging, always thought-provoking and imaginative. But apart from all that brainy nonsense, when you get right down to it, ‘Edda’ is a rollicking good read, full of fights, chases and all the stuff that make up a good thriller. Hope you enjoy the chat, and hope you check out the book!

Reading from a New Angle

It might be going a bit overboard to call it ‘a revolution’, but here’s an interesting idea, as featured on the Mail Online site. Hodder have imported a new publishing format from the Netherlands. Basically, it’s a paperback novel you read with the spine turned horizontally, with the pages in landscape position. The paper is extremely thin – based on the type used in some bibles. These two design elements allow the books to be much smaller than the typical paperback. About the size of an old-fashioned tape cassette, but thicker.

You have to read down the Mail’s article a bit before you figure out the real selling point of this format – it’s a light, pocket-sized book, but opens into a size that’s still comfortably readable. It makes the book more portable.

Hodder and – to a lesser extent, the Mail’s article – hail this format as a challenge to the ebook, but I can’t really see how. With ebook readers, portability is not the main selling point. The flipbook cannot contain a range of books in one volume – letting you read more than one book at a time – you can’t change the size of the type, read portrait or landscape if you choose, you can’t download your next book from the web, you can’t link through to other documents, and the list goes on. Whatever else this is, it’s not an answer to the ebook.

But all that said, I’m all for trying new formats that might make reading easier and more convenient. Reading is done over a myriad of different media, that’s the nature of things now, and it’s good to see publishers adapting. What isn’t all that welcome, is that these books are a bit more expensive, but I suppose that’s understandable with an experimental format.

There is one problem I can anticipate. I’ve heard the paper can be so thin you can see through it – you might even have to put tissue or paper between the pages to be make the text legible. This was a problem I had with a couple of editions of the Mad Grandad books (the picture inset here is from one of those – it’s not a flipbook) and I find it really annoying when I’m looking at the page of a book and I can see the page behind it. Let’s hope that’s not the case with these, but fair play to Hodder for trying something new.