Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beaches, Bars, Books and Birds

It's been a beautiful morning and even my son's declaration that he loves Coldplay hasn't dented my good mood. We have just returned from the beach, which was eerily deserted:

What's the matter with people? After one of the longest, most soul-destroying winters in living memory, I would have expected everyone within a 10-mile radius to flock to the beach on a day like this. 

Perhaps, unlike me, they knew that the tide was coming in.

The empty calm of Birling Gap made a marked contrast to the place I was at 12 hours earlier:

This looks like a set from the 1960s German sci-fi television series Raumpatrouille Orion, but is actually a chichi cocktail bar in Brighton where 'happening' people go. 

Because most of my happening has already happened, I felt a little incongruous. However, as I'd gone for the Russian oligarch look that evening, I blended in quite well with the other middle-aged men, most of whom had kindly taken their nieces out for a drink.

My wife and I had arranged to meet a couple for dinner . We barely knew the woman and had never met the husband, so it felt a little like a blind date. Fortunately, they turned out to be lovely people and although the conversation was dominated by comparing notes about our sons' conditions, we found many other things to talk about.

The husband is a screenwriter and complained about the number of manuscripts he received from would-be writers: "If I tell them to bugger off because I'm too busy, they're fine. But if I actually read the thing and criticise it, they can't stand it!" 

It rang horribly true. 

I thought of the many self-published novels that I'd been given over the years. On one occasion, a man handed me three, as if I had nothing better to do in my spare time. 

I slammed my beer down on the table: "If I become a millionaire, I'm going to establish a bursary and pay people to not write books." 

That was the drink talking. In the cold light of day, the self-publishing scene is far more complex now that we have e-books. Several publishing sensations began as rejected manuscripts that went on to become Kindle bestsellers. Others, like Hugh Howey's Wool series, were released straight into Kindle format, without any attempt to submit the manuscript to a publisher. Wool is now a bestselling book, with a 20th Century Fox adaptation in the pipeline.

Of course, these books are the exceptions to the rule and as a reader, I'd still rather have my choice of new novels curated by publishers, booksellers and literary agents. When I look at Amazon's Kindle books pages, I feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the number of self-published titles. How do I know if they're any good? Can I trust the reviews? 

On the other hand, if I ever find that there is a book inside me but nobody wants to publish it, it's comforting to know that it's possible to send it out into the world without destroying any trees or wasting a four-figure sum of money.

In the meantime, I'm trying to make a living by selling books. Sometimes it feels as events are conspiring to drive me out of business and during the last few months, I've had to contend with a leaking roof, an alcoholic Polish forklift truck driver, an infestation of rodents, the bankruptcy of my postal company and a rates bill that is far higher than expected. As if that isn't enough, I've now discovered that a robin has made a home in the bookshelves:

I wouldn't recommend ordering the book on the right.

I suppose if the eggs hatch, there'll be more robins, more nests and more droppings on the computers. I didn't envisage any of this.


Lucy R. Fisher said...

What a beautiful nest! Lined with wool, how cosy. Robins have a lovely song and seem to like humans. Awkward if they poo on the computers, of course. Will make sure to send you my self-published book. ;-)

Daleaway said...

You are so, so right about the need for cultural curators - the Internet has made the dissemination of 100% tosh a game we can all play, and far too many do.

Having spent long enough on the receiving end of just one publisher's slush pile, and a few years on literary funding committees, I have read enough bad writing to last me a lifetime. Thank God for the gatekeepers, I say.

I wonder how long it will be before a business model evolves which will put the gatekeepers right back where they belong.Speed the day!

MikeP said...

Speaking as a cynical old publisher (and veteran of many a slush pile), I wish I could share your faith in the gatekeepers. Seems to me that publishers themselves have been responsible for such mountains of garbage over the years that the self-publishers feel validated at last. Have a look along the shelves in Asda next time you're there. Time was that people would only publish a book themselves if no 'real' publishers were interested; nowadays it's a perfectly valid way to market.

After all, the only consideration involved in being a gatekeeper is, 'I like this book, so it's possible that enough other people might to make it a viable proposition.' Nothing more scientific than that, however much we dress it up.

As for your plan to pay people not to write books, I am reminded of William Targ's aphorism: 'The trouble with the publishing business is that too many people who have half a mind to write a book do so. '

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - I was very impressed with the wool and imagined the robin collecting it from fences and throned twigs, then I saw that my insulation material had a big gap...

Daleaway and Mike - I take Mike's point about publishers - there's far too much formulaic dross, with too many pastiches of the latest bestseller. I also despair when I learn that X has been paid £750,000 for his or her celebrity memoir.

But I agree with Daleaway that we need the 'gatekeepers'. Like Churchill's quote about democracy, you could describe it as the worst system in the world, apart from all the others.

I like to know that what I'm reading has been vetted by several people who know their stuff and there are some publishers and imprints that I still have confidence in.

As Mike says, you can't blame people for jumping the queue, particularly if their Da Vinci Code rip-off is no worse than the one published by Headline. Also, it looks as if some readers are perfectly happy to buy a thriller by an unknown writer for 32p.

I'm glad I'm not a high street bookseller any more!

James Russell said...

You can't nest among e-books, unless you're a virtual bird.

Nota Bene said...

I've never seen Birling Gap so you can say anythin g harsh about robins is beyond me...whatever they're done, or are planning to do!

Steerforth said...

I'm innocent of all anti-Robin charges. Where's your evidence?

Daleaway said...

I'm with you on the "apart from all the others" take, Steerforth.

Even allowing for the dross that gets published, no, ESPECIALLY considering all the dross that gets published conventionally.

It's hard enough now to sift through the stacks to find a book to one's taste even with the help of publishers and booksellers. Without their input, it's going to be diabolical. And a colossal waste of the reader's time.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's okay, Steerforth. Probably in ten years time, there won't be any books any more anyway -- just twitters (and I'm not talking about your sooon-to-be robins!)


David said...

Three things

(1) I do hope there will be real books in 10 years' time. If there aren't, I plan to spend my book money on collecting old hardbacks; presumably there will be loads available, discarded by all those who have gone e.

(2) As to "gatekeepers" - there is a crying need for effective ones. It could be publishers, if they have any sense, but if they're not up to it, surely someone will take that role?

(3) Thanks for brightening up my week with that picture of the robin's nest.