Friday 27 July 2012

Confessions of an E-Book Agnostic

I'm going to say this right up front: I don't dig on e-books. I'm not against them; it's not a point of principle, I have no strong feelings about their effect on the publishing ecosystem. It's just that I like to read on paper. That's my preference, and I can't see it changing any time soon.

It's not that I'm a technophobe. That's one thing I'm pretty confident that I couldn't be accused of. Before I got my break as an author, I spent ten years as a partner in a web design business. I even helped build the Mysterious Press online e-book shop, including the back-end coding.

It's not that I don't have the devices to hand. Between me and my wife, we have three iOS devices that run the Kindle app, as well as iBooks. I've dowloaded a few e-books to my own iPhone, read a few short stories (I can recommend Chris F Holm's 8 Pounds), tried to read a novel by a well-known self-publishing advocate (couldn't, it was sucky), but that's about the height of it.

Despite all the convenience that e-books offer, and the ease of availability, we still have a house full of old-fashioned books (see photo - our little girl getting a head start). We have one room dedicated to their storage, and even then, we have bookcases in other rooms for the overflow.

There are two driving forces in my (and my wife's) failure to move with the times:

Books are Objects of Desire

We like owning books. We like to have them on our shelves, lined up, spines out. We display some vanity in how we arrange them, the volumes we're proudest of getting the most prominent display, the trashy paperbacks banished to the spare room. We like nice, hefty hardbacks.  Special editions are even better. The books on display say something about us in the same way that the pictures on our walls do. They're a visible illustration of who we are as people, the places we've been, the things we value, the things we aspire to.

The Experience Matters

I've been an iPod user for a few years now; unlike e-books, I put up little resistance to that advancement. But I rarely buy music through iTunes. I still buy physical CDs. I still spend time flipping through racks in HMV, hoping to find something special. I still order them online and wait the few days for them to show up.


Because I care about the quality. I want better than the iTunes standard bitrate of 128kbps, so I'll wait a few days, or drive to a store, and rip the CD with lossless audio. Besides, I want to physically own what I buy. In the event of some terrible catastrophe wiping my iTunes library, I know I'll still have the vast majority of my music safely stored on shiny discs.

The importance of the format became more apparent to me when I recently bought a good quality turntable to pair with my stereo. Not only could I revisit the vinyl I collected in my youth (yes, I'm that old), I could also buy some of favourite albums on superior quality black groovy plastic. Some of these were albums I hadn't discovered until long after I'd made the move to CD, so I'd never heard them as they were originally intended. I'm talking about mono pressings of LPs like Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and John Mayall's Blues Breakers Featuring Eric Clapton. And they sound magnificent on vinyl, with more weight and presence than any version I've heard before.

The most important thing I noticed, however, is this: I listen to music on vinyl in a very different way. When I thought about it, I realised that I experience music in completely different ways according to the format. With iTunes, music becomes a backdrop for whatever I'm doing, whether that be writing, reading, doing the dishes, whatever. I tend to listen to CDs in my car, when I'm on the move, so I get long stretches if I'm heading out of town, or short snippets if I'm only going to the shops. It's rarely a start-to-finish listen.

But with vinyl, I do nothing other than listen. And I listen actively. I don't read, I don't tidy, I do nothing other that get up and turn the record over so I can listen to side two (ah, the loveliness of actually a side two is not to be underestimated). In other words, the format on which my content is delivered has a huge impact on how I experience that content.

The same applies to books. The reading experience is different. It's not the tactile aspect, though that is important. It's the importance one places on the reading itself. I'll go further and say the experience of reading a mass market paperback is different to reading a first edition hardback. The experience itself has greater value.

But That's Just Me

Your mileage will vary, of course. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong on this. It may well be true that I'm missing out on a world of reading possibilities. And I'm not ruling out ever making the transition to the Kindle, Nook, or whatever device is de rigueur by the time I finally give in. But this is where I am now. Agnostic, sticking with what I know, but willing, someday, to change my mind based on the evidence before me.

I've got a couple of related topics I want to blog about over the next week or so; check back if you're interested.

Monday 23 July 2012

On Leathergate and Sockpuppets

I attended the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate last week. If you were there, or keeping an eye on events via Twitter et al, then the controversy surrounding a panel discussion on E-books won't have passed you by. If it did, these links will give you a few different points of view on the matter:

We Love This Book's summary:

Stephen Leather's side of things:

Panelist Steve Mosby had this to say:

And finally, a very thorough round up of events:

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I know some of the players personally. I should also say I'm neutral on E-books and self-publishing, and I may address those topics (along with others raised here) in later blog posts. Anyway...

Given that this particular panel was titled 'Wanted for Murder: The E-Book', I think it's fair to say that a heated debate was expected, and Stephen Leather rightly points out that he was encouraged to make his arguments in strong terms. I've read quite a few posts scattered around the internet, mostly from people who weren't there, seeming to give the impression that Stephen Leather faced a hostile audience, and panel, from the outset. That simply wasn't the case. In fact, the general mood in the earlier part of the discussion was surprisingly cordial, and there seemed to be a genuine interest in sharing different points of view on various aspects of the E-book revolution.

I've had a few brief conversations with Stephen Leather online, but I only met him in person for the first time after his panel. He came across as a genuine and friendly bloke, and I look forward to meeting him again in the future. But I have to say, and I do so without bearing any ill will towards Stephen, that during the course of the debate he gave the impression of being arrogant, perhaps a little smug, and at times even belligerent towards the other members of the panel. That insults were shouted from the audience is to be regretted, but to say that Stephen didn't earn the crowd's hostility through his own efforts would be a lie.

Quite a few of Stephen's more controversial comments have already been widely discussed online: the crowd-sourcing of copy editing and proof reading; that pirates, whom many authors regard as stealing the bread from their tables, are doing his marketing for him; and a comment regarding his own publisher that was, to say the least, ill-judged. But one particular admission got under my skin, and for very personal reasons.

Towards the end of the discussion, Stephen Leather spoke about using fake Amazon accounts to manufacture discussions about his own books in order to give the impression of a buzz around them. To my surprise, this wasn't seized upon by other panel members, other than Steve Mosby, who asked Stephen Leather to repeat that he used what are known as "sockpuppet" accounts. This did receive closer scrutiny, however, in the various conversations that were had around Harrogate throughout the rest of the weekend.

Let me explain why this bothers me so much: I know of another crime novelist, whom I shall not name, who uses sockpuppet accounts in a similar way. This author uses them to mention his own books in various Amazon message boards, but going further than Mr Leather, he constantly references his own books whilst posting dozens upon dozens of five-star reviews for other books in the same genre. He also gives himself multiple five-star reviews.

How serious a crime is that? Hardly a prison matter, of course, but the fact that it happens devalues the Amazon review system. It also betrays the trust of current and potential readers. Some might regard it as a harmless way to game the system; I regard it as simply dishonest.

Even worse, and why this bothers me most especially, this same author has used these sockpuppet accounts to post repeated one-star reviews for my debut novel, as well as for authors such as Laura Wilson, Declan Hughes, Tom Piccirilli, and Ed Moloney. I blogged about the issue some time ago while it was still ongoing. Many of the negative reviews of my book have since been removed, and it appears his fake accounts have been banned from the Amazon forums, which at least shows someone takes it seriously.

Now, Stephen Leather has done nothing as bad as that. To my knowledge, his sockpuppet activities have been limited to those message board discussions that he's admitted to. But it's starting down the same path as my own Amazon stalker. At best, Stephen's abuse of Amazon accounts is disingenuous. At worst, it's flat-out lying to his own readers. Most of all, I think it was the rather self-satisfied way in which Stephen made the admission that got to me; he spoke as if this was a cheeky-chappy dodge, but I know how malicious a purpose such deception can serve.

I've generally gone by the policy of not getting involved in contentious online debates. I feel it rarely advances any worthwhile cause, and I always stick to the rule of not posting anything online that I wouldn't be prepared to say to somebody's face. And I'd be prepared to say any of this to Stephen, preferably over a pint, and I think he'd be able to take it and make his own case in return.

Sunday 8 July 2012

2D or not 2D. That is the predictable pun.

I've been to the cinema twice in recent weeks. The first time was to see Prometheus. I'm a longstanding fan of the first two Alien movies, and I've been content to pretend the other sequels and spin-offs don't exist. I was very excited in the build up to the new movie, especially considering Ridley Scott was at the helm. How could it possibly fail?

Well, it didn't fail exactly, but it was a great big ball of existential 'Meh, so what?' In terms of storytelling, the movie was bogged down by its own pomposity. In the process of questioning the purpose of mankind's existence, it forgot the purpose of its own: to entertain.

But that wasn't my biggest issue. My real gripe was with the 3D presentation. Of course, I could have opted to see it in 2D at the same theatre, but I thought I'd better go the whole way and see it as the director intended. I'm not sure if the director intended me to see it as if I was looking through two toilet rolls and a pair of sunglasses, but that was the effect.

I've seen a few other movies in 3D, including Avatar, which probably made the best use of the technology, albeit within the confines of a so-so story. Toy Story 3 looked good, especially tied to a stellar story, and The Avengers had enough fun and bombast to make the indignity of putting a pair of glasses over the top of my own glasses worthwhile. But given the choice, I could live without this whole 3D thing. I don't think the extra dimension added a great deal to Toy Story 3 or The Avengers, which were good movies regardless of any gimmicks. I'll happily watch those again in 2D. But next time a big blockbuster that I need to see in the cinema comes out in 3D, I'm going to go with the 2D version.

The other movie I saw on the big screen recently couldn't be any more different to Prometheus. My favourite movie ever, starring my favourite actor, and directed by my favourite director, got a cinematic re-release a couple of weeks ago. Billy Wilder's The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, was shown in the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast. Because it was a Monday night, it only cost three quid. Three measly pounds to see an indisputable classic, fully restored in a brand new print, in one of the nicest movie theatres you'll ever visit. Bargain or what?

I loved every minute of it, enjoyed spotting details I'd never seen before, and relished the gasps of horror from the audience when Mr Sheldrake (played by a delightfully oily Fred MacMurray) offers Fran a hundred dollar bill for Christmas.

One thing struck me most of all: the set of CC Baxter's office floor, the desks receding into the distance, row after row, the brutal flourescent lighting above the workers crammed together like battery chickens. You want some depth of field in your movies? You want to feel like you can reach into the picture? Well, you don't need to stick a pair of goggles on your face. Just watch The Apartment and enjoy the Oscar-winning skills of Edward G. Boyle and Alexandre Trauner.

The biggest movie of this year, after the record-breaking success of The Avengers, will undoubtedly be The Dark Knight Rises. I wonder if any studio executives took director Christopher Nolan aside and whispered in his ear, something like, "Chris, how do you feel about going 3D on this one? What do you say? Everybody's doing it..."

I'm very glad Nolan has resisted any pressure he might have been under to follow this trend. There's huge expectation weighing on the third part of the Batman trilogy, and while I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Nolan will pull off the near-impossible feat of another triumph, I'm confident it'll look spectacular, and not a single soul will miss those batarangs flying out of the screen at them.

Thursday 5 July 2012

So, this blogging lark...

I gave up on blogging about eighteen months ago. It was a decision I agonised over for quite some time. Up to then, I'd been blogging for four years, albeit infrequently by the time I finally quit. I owe my writing career to blogging; you can read how all that came about over at, with most of the action occurring around spring and summer 2008.

Why did I give it up? The short answer is that I lost interest.

The long answer?

The purpose of the blog had been to record my attempts at writing a novel and getting it published. The blog eventually documented the writing of CONDUIT, a horror story that will never see the light of day.  Later, it was a genre-splicing thriller called FOLLOWERS that went on to be published as THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST in the USA, THE TWELVE in the UK, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Spinetingler Award as well as getting shortlisted for a bunch of others, and has been translated into more languages than I can count off the top of my head. It even got optioned for a movie, though don't ask me how that's progressing because I've been kept in the dark since I signed the contract.

I owe all that directly and indirectly to blogging. If I hadn't become part of the online writing community, stalking agent and editor blogs, getting my stuff critiqued by other hopefuls, the planets would not have aligned in the way they did.

But once those planets had aligned, the blog's purpose for being had been fulfilled. It was no longer relevant to my situation. I posted less and less often, going quiet for months at a time by the end, and frankly, it became an embarrassment. Around the time I retired the blog, I set up another with the intention of writing about my great passion for guitars. I didn't manage a single post.

So, now, why am I writing this? For some reason, I'm thinking about starting to blog again, primarily on what it's like to be a professional author. It's partly to do with trying to raise my online visibility to where it had once been, but it's also maybe about venting a little, a way to deal with the daily terror of trying to support my family by making up stories. Which, let's face it, is a ridiculous thing to do.

But here's a question: How many people out there still read blogs?

I'm down to just a handful these days (I might list those in a separate post some time). A couple of them are for entertainment, a couple are genuinely useful, and one I visit for the sole purpose of annoying myself. There are numerous blogs that I used to follow religiously that I haven't looked at in a year or more. It seems to be that blogging is no longer about networking; Facebook and Twitter have taken on that role for most people. So what value can I bring to the blogosphere (blimey, it's a long time since I typed that word)?

In other words, should I bother my arse establishing a new blog? Is it a waste of time? Thoughts welcome.