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book thief

Some notes on my experience of the self-publishing scene.

There may be other distribution networks for independent authors out there, but so far as I can tell the above listed are the mainstays of the self-publishing world at the moment. Amazon and Smashwords allow authors to charge money for their books. Free e-books, obviously, doesn’t.

I never discuss Amazon much as a platform, other than to warn writers you’ll probably find your stories (like my Sea View Café) appearing on there as pirated versions. Yes Ethelyn Purvines, I mean you, you shameless little bastard! All independent authors are vulnerable in this regard and, though galling, there’s little point making a fuss about it. But neither do I wish to spend time promoting a platform where it’s hard for a reader to tell the difference if they’re paying money to a genuine author or a dubious doppelgänger. They seem to operate a strictly hands off policy at Amazon, so anyone can publish anything and get away with it, thus e-book piracy thrives. Use Amazon if you like, but I don’t and never will. If you find a book on there that looks like mine, it’s pirated. I also find it near impossible to get stuff like this taken down.

Smashwords on the other hand perform some basic checks on your uploaded work. Their formatting requirements can seem fussy at first but are not unreasonable, and the fact the author has to put some effort in does tend to discourage the pirates who’d rather not do any work beyond cut and paste. Unlike Amazon the Smashwords team also do random searches on snippets of text from your uploaded manuscripts to check you’re not merely ripping off someone else’s work. This level of diligence enables them to court distribution arrangements with other “premium” e-book sites like Apple’s iStore, Barnes and Noble and WH Smith. That said, although those big names do carry my books, I’ve never had a download from any of them, so they’re not worth bragging about.

Smashwords also allows a writer the flexibility to set their work as free, or to experiment with a range of price-points. If you make your books free, you can expect on average three or four downloads per day – more when a work is new. If you set a price, you won’t download as many. “The Inn at the Edge of Light” went up in December 2019, priced $0.99, and as of now has been downloaded four times, which is hardly a living, so don’t kid yourself, but all in all I do recommend Smashwords for its integrity and its service to self-publishing.

If you’re happy to give your books away, Free Ebooks have a much higher download rate, but sadly I note those titles I put up on Free Ebooks started appearing on Amazon in pirate versions. Ethelyn Purvines pirate version of my Sea View Café was lifted directly from Free Ebooks. I’ve now closed my account with them and had them pull all my books from their circulation lists. If you’re sensitive about the possibility of your work being stolen, I really can’t recommend them.

There is another distribution network called Wattpad but that’s a bit of a wilderness and I can’t recommend that either, not if you’re ambitious to find readers. I do post on there when drafting a new work, but for reasons that are more to do with setting the pace of writing a story, than for self-publishing it. For example, my current work in progress “Winter on the Hill” I’m posting on Wattpad at a rate of roughly one chapter per week. I find this deadline, though imaginary, adds a little energy to things. When the story’s complete, it’ll disappear and go to Smashwords.

Writers write for many reasons. For some it’s vanity, but they tend to last only so long as it takes for reality to kick in. Others write for their friends, others for themselves, others because it’s in their blood, and they have no choice. For critical acclaim and money you still need to find your way into conventional publishing with its distribution and marketing machinery. Without that, if the Booker prize is still your aim, you’re dead in the water.

Until someone comes up with a coveted prize for self-published e-book fiction, the literary talent willing to sit on a judging panel for free, and a sponsor willing to stump up some serious prize money, self-publishing’s always going to be for the outsiders who can’t get a look in any other way, and that means writing mostly for nothing.

Is writing for nothing worth it? Well, “Saving Grace” went up on Smashwords for free about a year ago and to date it’s been downloaded 2166 times, so plenty of people have read it and some have written back to tell me they enjoyed it. Am I pleased by that, even though it’s not made me a dime? Yes I am. By contrast just four people have downloaded “The Inn at the Edge of Light” for which I’m charging $0.99. Am I as pleased by that? Well, grateful as I am to those readers who took a punt, the money gained from self-publishing is clearly never going be sufficient incentive to write your next book is it?

But then writers write. If it doesn’t suit you, or it makes you unhappy, then don’t.

Be well.

Graeme out.

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durleston wood cover smallIt was Mark Twain who said: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”

I disagree, but then I would – having been writing willingly without pay for considerably longer than three years. Indeed I write these days without actively seeking any pay at all. As a round rebuttal of Mark Twain’s opinion on the matter, I offer instead the five rules of contemporary independent authorship:

 

 

1) Writers write.

2) If you can’t get anyone to pay, it’s okay to write for nothing, for as long as you want.

3) Publishers pay writers. (Sometimes).

4) Writers never pay publishers. Anything. (Ever).

5) Writers need not saw wood.

Most of us who write online for free are doing more than avoiding sawing wood. What we’re doing is bypassing a system that stands in our way. We’re seeking readers without having to negotiate the quaint arcana of the commercial publishing world. We write for free because experience has taught us that to seek payment from others is to close the door on our self expression, that to persist we might as well slide our work to the bottom of a drawer where it will remain for ever unread. Perhaps we lack the necessary persistence, perhaps we lack the talent. But neither of these cautionaries matter. We do it because we can. And in doing it we will find readers.

We can do it in a number of ways:

In the first instance, we can pedal our wares from the margins of our blogs. Click the cover-pic and you get a download from the public folder of our Dropbox thing. Simple. This way our work is completely independent and virtually immortal. Our stuff stays online until the sun goes supernova. The downside is unless you can game the system to achieve a monumental blog following, downloads are likely to be small. I manage a few per week. Not great, but who cares?

For more readers, you sign up to websites who grant a bigger exposure in exchange for plastering your stuff with advertising, or by tempting you into paying for “author services” like editing, proof reading, or marketing. Need I repeat my advice not to pay anyone anything in order to publish your work? It’s one thing to write for nothing, quite another for it to cost you money. The other thing to bear in mind when considering such sites is how many downloads you’re likely to achieve. There’s no point in signing up if their download rates are no better than your self served blog.

I use Feedbooks, Smashwords, and Wattpad. Feedbooks was always the best for downloads – even stuff I’ve had on there for years was still getting ten or fifteen downloads a week. I say “was” because it looks like Feedbooks is now dead so far as indys are concerned. Smashwords is less successful, but still garners a steady, if more modest exposure to potential readers. Wattpad,… well, Wattpad is a strange one. Put a novel on there in one lump and you’ll be lucky to get a single hit, ever. Put it up a chapter at a time over a period of months and you’ll do much better, at least until that final chapter goes up and then you’ll get not a dickie bird again. There’s a social media angle to Wattpad of course. Virtual networking. You like theirs,and they like yours. You need to use it to get the best from it, but I’m usually too busy with other stuff, like writing. I’m also an unreformed introvert who finds anything “social” a bit awkward.

Just recently I’ve been looking at other avenues, namely Free eBooks.net, putting my novel “In Dureleston Wood” on there by way of an experiment. The Free eBooks’ business model requires both writers and readers to sign-up. Readers are limited to five downloads per month unless they pay for VIP membership. Writers who contribute get VIP membership automatically, which suggests to me this may end up being a writer’s only hangout.

But anyway,..

Unlike Smashwords, there’s no option to charge for your work, but that doesn’t bother me. You can add a donate button so readers can tip you via your Paypal Account, should they feel so inclined, but let’s not fool ourselves over the potential of that. The site is heavy on advertising and it’s keen to sign us up for a premium marketing package, but again that violates my principles, so we won’t be going there.

Upload is simple, requiring a .doc formatted manuscript and a cover pic. Then you fill out your blurb and it’s done. Publication isn’t immediate – the info says it can take up to three working days for a submission to be “considered”, but a quick scan of what’s already on offer reveals there’s a lot of crap on there so I wouldn’t worry too much about being rejected. I wasn’t overly optimistic regarding my potential for downloads. I’ve tired various sites like this before and managed no more than a dozen hits in a year – but I achieved my dozen here after the first day. The rate will probably dwindle over time, but so far it looks like Free eBooks and I can do business without violating too many of my principles.

And without sawing any wood.

 

 

 

 

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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tennerSo, you run a blog, you self-publish online, but your presence is like one small star in the firmament. How do you get noticed? How do you drive traffic to your stuff? Well, I have this killer idea, and one I’m going to be foolish enough to share with you. Be warned though, my view on this topic is typically eccentric, to say nothing of ambivalent.

For a start, I’m no good at blowing my own trumpet. It just seems immodest, so I don’t do it. I have a lot of work online, including several novels that amount to decades of work, and they just sit there waiting for the occasional passer by. They do get downloaded, two or three times a day on average, and since I’m giving them away, it makes no sense to market them.

Or does it? Maybe I should think about it – I mean doing this thing I’ve thought about, and which I’m going to share with you.

For the independent author big marketing budgets are a thing of fantasy, and you really don’t want to be spending a lot of your own money. You can do it the free “gorilla” way of course, illegally plastering advertising notices and GR codes all over the place. Indeed, gorilla marketing sounds fun, but it also sounds like a cross between littering and graffiti to me, with a big arrow pointing back to whodunnit. The closest I came to Gorilla marketing was once pencilling my web address on the fly leaf of a paperback novel which I then recycled through a charity shop. Again this seemed immodest, and it’s had no noticeable effect on my fame or fortune.

Serves me right.

But that’s not my killer idea. My idea can’t fail, and it’s this:

Let’s for arguments sake say, I’ve hidden an envelope of money somewhere, maybe behind a lamp-post, or in a crack in a wall, or under a flowerpot, and that the precise grid coordinates are embedded in one of my posts – or maybe as a cryptic clue in one of my novels. I mean, you’ve only to mention “free money” in your tags and people do crazy things. I have a fancy it might even go viral, then I’d get hundreds of thousands of prospective treasure seekers scouring my every word for clues, downloading my novels like crazy, and sending my hit-rates stratospheric.

I don’t know why others haven’t thought of this. And there needn’t be a lot of money involved – perhaps even a humble tenner would do it, and that’s hardly going to break the bank, is it?

But on the downside, those treasure seekers, scouring my writing for clues would not be interested in my words – only in the money I’d hidden. Again, it seems immodest, adding to this the even bigger sin of cynicism, and of course there’d be a lot of broken flower pots. So don’t waste your time reading back through my archives – unless you really want to of course. I did think about it, briefly, as a bit of fun, after reading about this mysterious Twitter bod who’s been hiding money all over LA. But my stuff is what it is, and if you find it I’m glad, but if you don’t, I don’t mind. It puts me in the company of a lot of other writers.

Instead I spent half of that tenner on coffee, and an egg and bacon butty this afternoon.  The other half went on some more novels from the charity shop

Or maybe it didn’t.

#free money 😉

Graeme out

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free indie readerIf you’re looking for some new names in fiction to tickle your fancy, then look no further. Tom Lichtenberg has just put together a collection of short fiction by several indie authors (myself included). All of these authors write for free, their work having appeared on Feedbooks and Smashwords in the past. The Free Indie Reader No 1 is available from Feedbooks or Smashwords – just click the pic. And it’s free. Yes, FREE!

I’ve spent the Christmas holidays dibbing into this collection and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I also consider myself fortunate to find myself in the company of these very talented writers, whom probably – no disrespect to them – no one has ever heard of. I’d like to say thanks to Tom for taking this project on, and I’m happy to join with him in drawing the attention of the e-reading public to a little collection of work I’m sure they’ll find is well worth their perusal.

As fellow Indie author Paul Samael says here, the problem with self published works online is the vast and ever increasing amount of it, and trying to find something worthwhile can be a little daunting, to say nothing of discouraging, given the questionable nature of much of the work that’s out there. But believe it or not there are writers who take the medium seriously and are using it to bring to the public works of serious artistic merit, as this volume will show. I think there’s a great future for little edited collections like this in shining a spotlight in the right direction. Indeed, it may be that we’re looking here at the future of literary fiction.

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moll - william  hogarthOr less sensationally: Self-hosting your own ebooks

The business of self publishing continues to fascinate me. Currently I’m using two of the big names in free self-publishing, namely Feedbooks and Smashwords to host my stories. This basically means their computers hold the files containing my words and they present them in a such way that readers can find them – primarily on their smartphones or their Android tablets. This is by far the most efficient way for a self publisher to disseminate their work. For the traditional tweed suited, bow tied author, the dream is a book on the shelf at Waterstones, a highbrow book signing, and a table at the Booker awards ceremony, but for the modern indy – well this one at least -the dream is simply to have their book picked up by a Smartphone somewhere in the world, and using Smashwords and Feedbooks has worked out really well for me in that respect.

But there are snags in letting others host your work. With Feedbooks in particular I must admit to a growing irritation at the presence of childish smut that’s so “in your face” it’s hard to know where to look when you browse their website these days. If anyone can publish anything there’s always going to be a race to the “bottom”, and Feedbooks demonstrates this in heaps. If my rather staid literary titles end up sandwiched between offerings of anal intercourse and incestuous bonking there’s not a damned thing I can do about it, and I no longer find it “cool” to be seen out in such company. One is also at the whim of tech support when something goes wrong. Feedbook’s stats have been broken for months now, perhaps creaking under the strain of all that smut, so I’ve no idea how my stories are doing now. I’ve had a good run on there, and I hesitate to complain, but it makes one wonder, it makes one consider one’s options.

Smashwords on the other hand, while still a vibrant and valuable hosting service, one that has long championed the cause of the independent author, I feel falls down on the subject of formatting and upload. I’ve followed all the rules, put several manuscripts through their automatic ebook generator now, and none of them have come out right, at least not to my satisfaction. I know I’m particular, but I want it to look how I want it to look, and I don’t want to have to wrestle with it in order to get it there, or pay someone to do it for me. They have smut on Smashwords too but there’s a button you can click to make it disappear. Unfortunately, it makes most of my stories disappear as well.

Ho hum.

I don’t mean to sound like a grump, and I am grateful for the services these outfits provide – they really have saved me from drowning in my own words, and snatched me from the demoralising treadmill of traditional publishing. But what if you could produce your own ebook file, host it somewhere privately, for free, where you can maintain control of how your book looks, get stats on daily downloads and above all avoid having to sit down with pimps and pornographers? Sounds good? Well, I thought so, and I’ve spent the last few days exploring how I might go about it.

In order to get your work into an ebook reader on a smartphone or an android tablet you need it compiled in .epub format or .mobi for Kindle – there are other formats, but they’re the main two a writer should concern themselves with.  Sigil is a very useful tool in this regard – at least for epub. I put “Push Hands” through it last night and the output is very encouraging. The software is easy to use, well documented and free. For conversion to Kindle format, I’m guessing I’ll have to use Calibre, another free ebook formatting tool, but I’ve not tried that yet.

For the self-hosting bit you need Dropbox. I’ve had a free “cloud based” storage account with them for a while but I don’t use it much. With Dropbox you get a private and a public folder. If you drop your Sigil generated .epub file in the public folder you can then generate a web address to that file, which you can then cut and paste into your blog. I’ve created a separate page here at WordPress called “EPUB” where I can put my links. And hey-presto, a self publishing indy author, self hosting, and all for free. The downside? Well, as with all self publishing, without a team of publicists blowing the trumpet for us, we mustn’t expect many clicks, but a writer has to keep abreast of the options. Plus, if Feedbooks and Smashwords go belly up, at least my books are still out there.

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adrienneAllow me to introduce you. This is Adrienne Divine. She’s thirty five, British, and a former university lecturer now working as an estate agent in Carnforth, Lancs. Two years ago she had a serious car accident which left her in a coma. When she came round some weeks later, she discovered her husband – whom she’d not been getting along with for a while – had decamped to his native America, taking their two children with him.

In the movies, she would have flown over there straight away, engaged a ruggedly handsome lawyer and, after a dramatic legal battle, plus a threadbare sub-plot involving lots of guns, drug dealers and high speed car chases, she would have taken her husband to the cleaners, had her sweet revenge on him, rescued her children and brought them safely back to Blighty. She would also probably have fallen in lust with the lawyer enabling the inclusion of a  fairly tame boobs and butt love-scene – her stretchmarks and his bald-spot being expertly fuzzed out by CGI of course.

But this isn’t the movies, and Adrienne’s broke. She’s currently moving from one low paid job to another, barely able to cover the rent, let alone jet off to the States for an uspecified period of time and pay a lawyer thousands of dollars by the hour in order to untangle a messy affair, none of which is her fault. So she does what most ordinary people would do – they absorb the devastating hurt, and just get on, day to day, as best they can while hoping for a miracle.

Then Adrienne meets Phil, who’s not exactly the miracle she was hoping for, but it’s just possible he could be the next best thing. He’s a prospective buyer for a house her agency is trying hard to flog, but it’s a flat market and there’s something about the house that makes it even harder to sell. It’s remote, stuck out on a tidal island where it gets cut off by the sea for twelve hours out of twenty four. No one in their right mind, other than a hermit or a recluse, would ever consider buying it.

Phil is an oil and gas-industry geologist, struggling to adjust to a mainly desk-bound job in Manchester. A decade ago, he was involved in an accident flying out to a rig in the Atlantic which left six of his colleagues dead. Still suffering from PTSD, discontented by his bureucratic post, and perhaps even a little menopausal by now, he’s looking to buy somewhere really cheap, then quit the job and live frugally off his savings until the company pension kicks in. He doesn’t care what he does, so long as it’s different and he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone while he’s doing it.

Phil and Adrienne meet when he turns up at the office and she’s delegated, against her will, to drive him out to the house. He falls in love with her at once – well, who wouldn’t? But he also finds her cold, prickly and remote. She thinks he’s a boring, faceless corporate drone who talks too much. Plus he’s ten years older than she and her life’s complicated enough as it is without getting involved with another man.
They aren’t the most likely of lovers then.

The house doesn’t really suit him. It’s too close to the sea for a start which has a habit of irritating his neuroses, and he’s decided too much solitude wouldn’t be good for him anyway, that living out on a tidal island would be like casting himself adrift. But he goes along with Adreinne to view the place because he doesn’t want to come across as a prat and a time-waster. There something listless about him – he’s ambivalent about the house, confused, and looking like a man becalmed, waiting for a stiff wind to fill his sails.

As unlikely as it seems, these two will become lovers at some point – indeed their unfolding story seems contrived by fate in such a way as to make it almost inevitable; while they’re out on the island, the tide comes in earlier than predicted, on account of a  storm surge, trapping them there overnight. They’ve no choice then but to find a way  of getting along and after a shaky start, by morning both have got more than they bargained for. Less inevitable however, is the degree to which Phil and Adrienne discover in each other the catalyst for triggering a shift in mental perspective, enabling them to suddenly transcend their personal demons, and kindle fresh meaning for their lives.

Adrienne once wrote poetry, lectured in English Lit, also Psychology and Philosophy. As a girl she also dabbled in bedroom witchcraft, a practice through which she finds increasing comfort now as means of self empowerment in a world that appears to have otherwise stripped her of everything else. And Phil’s not the corporate drone he appears in his plain grey suit and plain grey rep-mobile of a car. He sees things, hears things, imagines things that inform his intuition in a way that goes beyond the rational.

He also draws pictures like the one he did of Adrienne, and posts them on Flickr,…

Having grown up in a society that frowns on the “irrational”, the emotional, and the intuitive, they’re both embarrassed  to admit this side of themselves in public, yet both begin to see their salvation depends not only on admitting their true inner natures, but embracing them – that only when envisoned through the lens of a romantic, mystical and even a magical perspective, can the world begin to mean anything again.

Okay,…

I’m writing this down in precis form because I want to get at the essence of what their story is about, and sometimes you need to get outside of it to do that, just like you can’t always see where you’re going for the lay of the land. And it’s beginning to make sense, what Phil and Adrienne have been telling me.

I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle of their story for about a year now, since they first came to see me with their unlikely opening scenario and persuaded me it would be worthwhile running with it. Sure, there’ll be several more drafts to go before I’ve wrung every last drop of meaning out of it, but the majority of the work is done. I can sit back and enjoy the ride now, without the worry of not knowing where we’re going any more.

Just because I talk to ghosts, it doesn’t make me insane, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. They dictate my stories for me, and I learn a lot from them. And Adrienne, a very particular ghost on this occasion, is telling me there’s no such thing as a small life, that we’re all heroes because to paraphrase the song, our skins are so soft and even supposedly ordinary lives can sometimes be very, very hard.

Thanks for listening.

Michael

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Ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. They’ve gone from the back pages of obscure tech magazines to the impulse buying hotspots of our supermarkets. They’re no longer clunky and butt ugly. They no longer eat batteries. They no longer require a degree in computer science to operate. They’re stylish, and they last for months between charges. And ebooks themselves are no longer the rare, experimental things they once were; most new titles now come in both paper and electronic versions.

I’ve become more comfortable parting with real money for virtual Kindle editions. They’re usually a bit cheaper, but the main attraction for me is I can be reading that book moments after I’ve paid for it online, any time, night or day, rather than having to wait several days for the postman to bring it. It just magically appears via this thing called Amazon Whispernet. I no longer feel conspicuous in the office at lunch time, reading my Kindle. There are several of them around now, and I’m no longer ridiculed as a “gadget man” when I get mine out. And speaking as a writer, I write exclusively in the electronic format these days, because without it, I’d have no readers. You don’t need a publisher to get your book on a Kindle, you see? You can publish it yourself and distribute it worldwide, easily, and for free.

However, for all of my enthusiasm, there’s a downside, and it has to do with the natural life-cycle of a paper book, one that’s reached a balance over the centuries, but which the ebook looks set to wipe out. And I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

With a brand new paper title, we buy it and it we read it, then we hang onto it for a bit, maybe for years, perhaps re-reading it occasionally, or we might lend it out to a friend. Or, if it’s not a book we particularly value and it’s just taking up shelf-room, we may gift it to someone, or pass it on to a jumble sale, or a charity shop. From here it begins life in the second hand market, exchanging hands maybe dozens of times for a fraction of its original cover price, until it eventually falls apart and goes for pulp or landfill.

But even softbacks are surprisingly resilient, persisting in perfectly decent condition for decades. Hardbacks can last centuries. The lifecycle of a paper book can be a long one, during which the book has the potential to touch the hearts and illuminate minds of dozens of people who happen upon it. This is the charm and the romance of a paper book, also the charm and the romance of second hand bookshops where these ancient vessels are traded.

With an electronic text, however, there’s no material content, nothing to be physically traded. Another crucial difference is that, unlike that paper book, which would be labourious to copy, an electronic text can be copied instantly, and as I know from personal experience, pirated with ease. In order to safeguard against this, most new commercial titles come with electronic protection built in – known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which prevents the text from being easily copied and passed on. Publishers argue they have no choice but to do this, otherwise the pirates would have a field day with every new title that came out, seriously damaging the revenue they could expect to earn. But DRM also means that having bought that book, even as its owner, you’re not in control of its destiny.

It’s your book. You paid for it. But its lifecyle now starts and ends with you. You can’t lend it out to someone else. I know someone’s going to tell me this isn’t strictly true, that there is a way with a Kindle edition of re-assigning a title from your Kindle to someone else’s for a limited period – 2 weeks, I think – during which time that book isn’t available to you. But you can only do this once, and 2 weeks isn’t long, and what if you don’t finish the book in time? And what if you don’t want to lend it out, but actually give it away?Sorry. DRM won’t allow you to do that.

It’s not difficult then to imagine a future where there are no paper books any more – no more dog eared copies of our favourite authors to be discovered in the charity shop. These works, securely DRM’d would still only be available, at full price, online. If you wanted something from an author but didn’t want to pay the full cover price for an old book, well,…

You’d have to cross over to the dark side.

Naturally, the hacker community can strip off DRM protection in a jiffy, and crank out freely copyable versions of any book they like. But this is more clearly an illegal act, a deliberate infringement of copyright – in other words piracy. But it could be that this is a crime DRM technology forces upon the book reading, book loving community. Books, as vessels of knowledge and emotion will be lent among friends and they will be resold, and they will be given away, because that has always been their nature, and the restrictions of DRM technology may simply be sufficient to bring out the anarchist in all of us.

What does this mean, I wonder? Will future e-book reading devices have software built in to sniff out suspicious text, remotely delete it, or flag it up to the ebook police? Do they have it already? But it’s such a complex business, staying one step ahead of the hackers – and is it really worth it, financially I mean? Does it not risk making the ebook more expensive than a paper book? With a paper book, you don’t need DRM. In passing a paper book on, you no longer have it. Problem solved.

There’s an argument that says DRM is ultimately self-defeating, and should be discontinued, that its benefits, in terms of restricting piracy, are far outweighed by the draconian restrictions it imposes on legitimate purchasers of the material. But what if the publishers persist with it? Can we imagine a black market in Chik-lit? Or Twilight books, or Harry Potter? Can we imagine our otherwise respectable wives and girlfriends sneaking down back alleys, disguised in trenchcoats and dark glasses to get their pendrives topped up with dodgy holiday reading from lit-hacking kids with shifty expressions – and all the time the threat of incarceration or a crippling fine at the hands of the ebook police? Never has reading sounded so adrenaline pumping and dangerous!

I’m still not sure I like the idea of building up a book collection I cannot see or touch, one I have no power to lend out or sell on as I please. I don’t want to pirate the titles in my book collection, but I feel I should have the right to lend them out or give them away. I’ll also be sad to see the demise of the charity shop’s book section, from where I get most of my fiction these days. Having said all that, as I write, I’m aware I have about twenty books in my pocket right now, books I carry with me everywhere on the Kindle App of my iPod Touch. I take it out, click it on and in a moment I’m flicking through my book collection. Does it really matter that its virtual? What’s more important, a bookcase at home you can run your fingers over, or a library you can carry around in your pocket and browse any time?

This is an interesting period – a period of transition in the book reading and book writing world. The conservative in me wants to urge caution, to charm you with the romantic allure of an old fashioned book, and tell you we should we should all stick to paper while we can. But the progressive in me is fascinated by the potential of the ebook.You can, for example, access the whole of the world’s classical literature for free. Not a single title need elude you.

And for the paid stuff? Well, DRM or not, that Amazon Whispernet is still very seductive!

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Well, never has my flabber been more ghasted. My thanks to Lori and to Emma for writing to me and pointing out that my “free” novels are apparently for sale on Amazon.com as e-books for the Kindle. I had been thinking about making some of my books into Kindle editions, but discounted the idea as ludicrously complicated and probably pointless, so I was astonished to discover it’s already happened. Unfortunately they appear to have been written by someone else.

What?

The road from Langholm Avenue is currently being sold by Kevin Peters under the title “Love lost and found again”. My novel Push Hands is being sold by Jennifer Watson as “Fearful of the consequences”.

I’m actually quite stunned by this.

If you check the “look inside” feature on Amazon for these works, you’ll see the text is mangled and truncated, but definitely my own words. If you pay to download these books you’re going to be disappointed, you’re going to be angry, and my only comfort is you won’t associate them with my name. The product descriptions on Amazon are also a straight forward cut and paste from my descriptions on Feedbooks, where both of these books, like all my works, are available for free – and where, hopefully, the formatting is neater and the text more complete. Jeeze, I agonise over these books,… I kick myself for every misplaced comma and apostrophe, then some scam merchant comes along and hacks and cuts indiscriminately, and charges you six dollars for it.

If you’ve read Push Hands or Langholm Avenue, I thank you,… you are valued as a most rare and precious  reader, and much respected by yours truly, whatever you thought of my work. If you’re also an Amazon customer, could I ask you to go over to Amazon.com and leave a comment in the reviews of “Love lost and found again” and “Fearful of the consequences”, pointing out this strange discrepancy?

I don’t mind giving my work away. I love to write and in many ways it’s been a great relief to me to finally brush aside the  obsession with published and therefore paid authorship, which was clearly beyond my reach. I do greatly appreciate the comments from all my online readers. It’s given my work a terrific boost over the years, but it hurts to have someone steal and try to sell my stuff under their own name, thinking I wouldn’t notice. I suppose it’s a risk we all take as independent authors, putting our work up there, unprotected, for all the world to see, and maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that someone’s tried to engineer a scam with it.

I urge “Jennifer Watson” and “Kevin Peters”, probably nom-de-plumes of the same n’er-do-well, to remove these books from Amazon.com immediately. If they’ve plagarised my stuff it’s reasonable to assume they’ve done it to other indy authors as well, so I also urge Amazon to take a closer look at their account. I’ll also be writing to Amazon and reporting the outcome here. I’ve been a good customer of theirs over the years, with never a cause for complaint, and I’m sure they’ll be as concerned as I am that this kind of thing is going on.

I’m not sure if I should feel insulted or flattered at this stage. I feel violated, possibly, which isn’t nice at all. I think I’ll take a bath, then go to bed. Maybe I’m dreaming all of this?

My thanks again to Lori and to Emma.

Regards

Michael Graeme

**Updated 18 Feb 2012 ** These plagiarised works are no longer on Amazon.com.  They took them down before I was able to contact them. Other works have now appeared though, under my own name and bearing their original titles. These are proving more difficult to shoot down.

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Well,… not much actually. I put my short story “The Man Who Could Not Forget” on there last night and by morning it had been downloaded 10 times, which isn’t bad at all*. Looking at the download figures for some of the fiction on here I’m very impressed -well over the million mark. But that has to be a mistake, surely! I’d thought “the Man Who” was doing well on Feedbooks at about 85,000, after three years, but I’m feeling like an amateur now.

One thing I’ve noticed reading through the material on Wattpad is that there’s a lot of stuff written, I’m guessing, by young teens – a lot of young romance stuff, vampire stuff, and fan-fiction, set in scenarios familiar to young teens – i.e. school or college. I don’t think this is a deliberate policy of Wattpad’s – it’s just that this particular demographic finds the service attractive, has moved in on it and is making good use of it.

However, if you’re an older writer like me, you tend to be writing for older people and I’m not sure you’re going to be finding many of them hanging around on Wattpad. I don’t mean this in bad way – I’m both heartened and surprised to discover so many youngsters writing creatively. I’m just hesitant to endorse it as a viable market – even a non-paying one – for the older writer. It strikes me that your biggest audience on here is going to be on the young side, and I’m not sure if those young ‘uns will take to stories with characters who have wrinkles and stretchmarks.

We’ll see. If “The Man Who Could Not Forget” tops a million downloads this side of Christmas, I’ll gladly eat my words.

The other thing you need to be very careful of here, as a writer, is Wattpad’s age-rating system. To reach the widest audience you need a “general” age rating, and for this your story can’t contain anything you’d be nervous of sharing with your mother or your young teen daughter, which means all good clean fun and no swearing. However, if your work slips over to the naughty side now and then, you’ve got to give your story an R rating, which almost puts it on a private list.

R rate your story and you’re going to severely restrict its distribution. Having said that, I still managed to find a lot of rumpy pumpy in those teen authored stories – not that I was looking. I may have misunderstood the requirements, but I’d still be mortified if I put, say “The Lavender and the Rose” up there, only to have it deleted because it was considered obscene.

There are some rude words and bare bosoms in my story “The Man Who Talked to Machines”, I recall, so I’ll load that up, 13+ rate it, and see how it goes.

In the mean time, to all those teenagers pushing material out into the cloud with Wattpad, I say well done.  

* I spoke too soon here. “The Man Who Could Not Forget” flatlined at about 12 downloads and hasn’t moved all week.

Updated July 2016: I pulled the Man Who after a couple of years. It never did much after those 12 downloads. Instead, I’ve found it a useful platform for putting up my novels as works in progress, one chapter at a time, say a chapter a week. Downloads are a bit of a mystery – you can get tens of thousands while having just a few readers, so I’m not sure how that works, but for the writer, knowing you have even just a few readers waiting on the next chapter aids in the writing process. Use Wattpad as a tool. It’s the story that’s important. Don’t use Wattpad if you’re thinking of eventually getting into print and for money. What’s up with Wattpad? Nothing, so long as you’re not expecting miracles.

 

 

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