Posts filed under 'Books'

Untying the Knot – launched today

4 comments August 30th, 2011

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that Linda Gillard had a new book coming out and I hoped to be reviewing it. It comes out today and I’ve been working on a new set of web pages for it on her site – Untying the Knot.

Review

The book is perhaps the closest to a romance that Linda has yet written, but as always with her it’s so much more than that. Indeed if that were all it was I wouldn’t be finishing reading it let alone enjoying and reviewing it. She has the knack of creating characters that you can believe in as if you’d met them, and imbuing them with exactly the sort of flaws, errors and misconceptions, balanced by persistence and courage and refusal to give in, that signal something more akin to real life rather than fiction.

It tells the story of a family which is separated, indeed the two main characters have been divorced for 5 years. One (Fay) is a talented textile artist – something of a Gillard trademark from her first book Emotional Geology – while the other (Magnus) is a former bomb disposal expert. The other characters are Magnus’ mother Jessie, who Fay has stayed close to, their daughter Emily and her fiancĂ©, and Magnus’ girlfriend Nina. Despite this being a small group Gillard finds plenty of resources for characterisation and plot twists as we learn more about their history and about why Fay and Magnus can’t live together but can’t be happy apart.

What principally sets this book apart from the average romance and gives it its cutting edge is that much of the story focuses on the strains of living with the demons of mental illness – another theme which Gillard uses both frequently and with astonishing clarity and sympathy. Magnus suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has terrifying flashbacks – having been blown up in action. We see what it’s like to have to cope with such a dramatic and invasive problem and also what it means to be their partner and to try to cope with the stresses it causes. And in understanding it in these characters we learn to understand it in real life; and realise that it’s neither unusual or something to be frightened of.

The scene for much of the important action is a once ruined Scottish towerhouse which Magnus has rebuilt, and as events unfold and we get sections of past storyline – something that the author handles seamlessly and better than any other I’ve read – we gradually see her talent in using the house’s symbolism, connecting interwoven plotlines through it, and connecting it to the past events which have shaped the characters’ lives and brought them to where they are.

As is the case with all of her books, this one has a couple of unexpected twists which serve to absorb the reader ever more deeply in the story and to shed much more light on the characters than could have been done by any form of exposition. We come to understand them and appreciate the reasons for their mistakes even as we pray that they won’t make them. We feel their yearnings, we cry with them when things look black and impossible, and we feel the shiver running down our spine when the tension becomes unbearable. (You’ll know what I mean when you read it!)

This is storytelling of a high order. I can almost, but not quite, understand the inability of publishers to classify it (see my earlier post), because a simple explanation of the plot makes it sound like the sort of throwaway, read-once and forget, novel that fills airport rubbish bins the world over. But the ability to convey emotion and inner thoughts and the commitment to communicate difficult subjects, as well as the finely crafted writing, set this book far above that level. Like all Linda’s books you’ll want to read it again, and you won’t forget the characters.

It deserves to be available in paper form but I have no doubt that her growing legion of readers will snap it up in ebook form, wondering why it’s so cheap as they do so. Her last book, which was the first to be released as an ebook, has sold over 10,000 copies without the benefit of publisher’s advertising budget. I expect this one to do even better.

Proof that all established publishers are nuts…

1 comment July 12th, 2011

… and becoming increasingly irrelevant.

I’m lucky to be able to keep in touch with my old profession of books by having a couple of excellent authors as web design clients.

Theresa Breslin is one of the best children’s authors in the world and recently just missed out on a second prestigious Carnegie Medal for her latest novel – though she did win the nod from the children who were shadowing the official judges.

Linda Gillard is a writer who is a little harder to pin down – “intelligent romantic fiction” is maybe the nearest you could get to a short snappy description but really she has a lot more depth than that conveys. She started with the independent publisher Transita for her first two novels, the innovative Emotional Geology which took the brave step of having a heroine who was middle aged and was recovering from mental illness and which was set in South Uist, and the dark and challenging A Lifetime Burning, then moved on to Piatkus for the third, Star Gazing, a slightly more mainstream romance except that the heroine has been blind from birth while the male interest is from Skye and has the second sight. Translated into a number of different languages it has proved a popular and award winning book, but here things started to go wrong when the publisher demanded more of exactly the same and rejected the book she actually wrote next. Like most real writers she was not one to churn out formulaic stuff and wrote the ideas that came to her, and she was forced to part from them and seek alternative publishing.

In the meantime her popularity amongst the online book discussions and bloggers was really taking off – something that could have been easily researched by any publisher – but astonishingly her subsequent books have been consistently turned down by all the publishers they have been submitted to. As a result she decided to publish her most recent book – House of Silence – as an ebook. In that form it has done very well, and despite setting a low price she has done better from the sales so far than she would have done from a full price paperback.

Despite all this, a proven author who has lots of enthusiastic readers and online fans who are waiting impatiently for anything she writes, her latest book has again been turned down by a swathe of publishers. What on earth are they thinking??? A number of them praise the book but say they wouldn’t be able to market it – it seems it’s just not easily classifiable in to their standard categories. As an ex-bookseller my response is that most publishers couldn’t market free beer!

The fact is that many publishers even 30 years ago when I joined the trade had little idea of what readers wanted or how to market to them; it was the booksellers, mainly independent booksellers, that knew how to do that. Now the independents are all gone – forced out of business by the supermarkets and Amazon – and most books that don’t make the supermarket’s top 20, usually riddled with celebrity’s memoirs or the latest semi-literate Dan Brown imitator, have only Waterstones left to promote them, at a cost, or Amazon, at a large discount.

Such is the state of bookselling now that any publisher who wants to have their books succeed must be aware of online support and then make the most of it. Otherwise no-one is going to do their marketing for them and many good authors are going to be ignored. Since most of them don’t seem to have the required understanding it’s inevitable that many more authors will take the path that Linda has and publish themselves, and eventually publishers will become obsolete. And it’ll serve them right!

Last week I had the privilege of reading Linda’s latest book pre-publication so I can design a new page for it on her website, and as usual I found it a compelling read. It’s called Untying the Knot and will be coming out in September and if Linda ok’s it I’ll do a review of it here shortly.

Is the Book Trade facing the Final Curtain?

2 comments November 23rd, 2009

I was a bookseller for 21 years, and books were in my blood long before that. Yet seven years after finding myself out of the business it is hardly recognisable and I’m beginning to wonder if it will still be there in another seven.

Increasingly I don’t feel the magic when I walk into a bookshop nowadays. I scan down the shelves and see endless identikit covers that seem to contain identikit writing. The old individuality that there used to be in the publishing industry has disappeared with the takeovers and amalgamations; the days of house styles, gentleman publishers nurturing their favourite sectors, and skilled editors who carefully built authors’ talents and helped them develop unique voices have all gone as the accountants and marketers have taken over. Earlier this week I was reading a post on Lynne Connolly’s blog about the difficulties for both authors and readers in an environment that is increasingly hostile to new, interesting and individualistic writing.

With the impact of supermarket sales of best sellers, the all encompassing reach of Amazon, and the electronic copying of large numbers of books of every type, the space where small and independent booksellers used to flourish has become more and more cramped. Now it seems that the big chains whose arrival helped force the quality stockholding booksellers like James Thin of Edinburgh, John Smith of Glasgow and Heffers of Cambridge into oblivion are now themselves being threatened. The BBC report of troubles at Borders makes grim reading, particularly the suggestions that they don’t have enough cash to last until Christmas. If Borders goes then apart from Waterstones, a chain that’s never been to my taste, there isn’t much left apart from Blackwells.

And of course that’s without even mentioning ebooks and the various readers such as the Kindle. Should they take off then the future of reading may be in electronic formats that you merely lease rather than own. In the same way that the younger generations have got used to mp3s and iTunes rather than the albums and CD’s that their parents enjoyed owning, we may be seeing the owning of books, those wonderfully sensual, tactile items that we book-lovers enjoy handling and turning the pages of, becoming a specialist activity rather than the mass proliferation that has allowed the near universal education that society has enjoyed for the last 40o years. And if the control of the electronic replacement is in the hands of a few media moguls rather than the variety of publishers and writers that we’ve become used to then that is a sobering thought indeed.

Books, Landscapes and History

Add comment November 21st, 2009

As a former bookseller I retain a great interest in books, particularly on history, and as a web designer and consultant I tend to choose clients that I can really believe in and feel committed to.

This is certainly the case with the Highland estate of Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire. Having visited the estate I can testify that it’s a delightful place with a sense of peace and history that are hard to beat.

They’ve just let me know that they hosted a book launch last week of a new book by a local author describing his boyhood life in the glen and researching the history of the area – Glen Tanar, Valley of Echoes and Hidden Treasures. From what I’ve been told it sounds an excellent book and I’m looking forward to reading it.

If you’re looking for a place to spend a relaxing highland break then I can recommend Glen Tanar, but even if not there’s some lovely pictures on the site and I’ll be adding more as we continue work on it.

Copyrights and Wrongs

Add comment October 14th, 2009

You know there’s something strange happening to the world when you find yourself almost agreeing with Rupert Murdoch!

What cataclycm could cause this abberation? Google’s attempt to take over the world of books and the Associated Press’s attempts to battle them in the area of news generation.

Actually given the all powerful search engine’s involvement I’m not sure whether this post belongs here or on my SEO Blog, but I think my history in the book trade means it should be here. Though my time at James Thin Booksellers now seems an age away and most of my reading seems to be online these days, I still love books and have the greatest respect for the people that write them. At one time I also had great respect for quality journalists, particularly those of The Scotsman who were trained under Alastair Dunnett, but I seldom see any these days – the newspapers I used to devour are now riddled with spelling and grammar errors, poor writing devoid of any sense of rhythm, and little recognisable research.

The news moguls are concerned about the use of their “quality content” by other people, often without attribution, and are trying to find ways of getting people to pay for it. They see Google as a major and increasing problem because more and more they are delivering not just search results but sizable extracts, which in our short attention span world can mean that people don’t even need to visit the news sites at all. If they don’t visit then they don’t see the adverts or don’t consider paying for premium content. Since hardly anyone actually buys a physical newpaper these days that’s the end of their business model.

Now it has to be said that Associated Press don’t seem to have much a of a clue about the web and what it is or how it works. They’ve spent some years trying to avoid people linking to their sites  – without paying for the priviledge – and for a while they tried to avoid deep-linking completely. They don’t seem to get that the web is about links. They also seem to have little idea of collaboration or any form of trying to profit from their work other than by direct sales and direct advertising. Essentially they don’t seem to have adjusted to the modern wired world and have decided that Google are their main bogey-man.

Now so far you may not have much sympathy for them, but there’s another side to all this and that’s copyright. If you respect writers (and musicians as well) then you want to see them paid for their efforts or they might just stop producing the literature, quality news articles, or music that we appreciate so much, or at best they might be unable to spend so much time on it and lose quality. For that reason I’m in favour of copyright, although I appreciate that it may need to develop in order to cope with the digital world of the 21st century. While I would be happy to see increased availability of out-of-copyright and some out-of-print material, at the end of the day I can’t agree with breach of copyright.

Some people, particularly in the USA, seem to have a rather extended view of the idea of “fair use” – the principle that allows quoting of work for review or criticism for instance. Plagiarism seems to be all too common and lifting of content just because it happens to be on the web seems to be accepted. It’s in this vein that the increasing indexing and display of site content seems to be considered reasonable. But even if you accept that, how can you tolerate the wholesale copying of books and the assumption that because you did the work of copying you suddenly have the right to make money out of them. I was brought up to understand that the action of copying or storing in a reproducible medium was itself illegal – copyright notices generally say so explicitely – yet some major academic libraries have collaborated with Google in doing this very thing.

Frankly I’m astonished that major publishers didn’t immediately slap court orders on Google to prevent such copying. They didn’t seem to wake up to the fact of what was going on and didn’t protest loudly enough when Google suggested that they could opt out if they wanted to. The principle of copyright should give the owner the assumption that they don’t have to run around opting out of someone else’s attempt to steal their work. Maybe the publishers were hoping they’d get a cut later, maybe they just didn’t understand the internet in the same way as they seem not to understand ebooks.

Google almost got away with it by paying various large sums to writers and publishers organisations but now we’ve got governments intervening as they realise the problems of monopoly that are arising. American federal regulators stepped in to prevent the latest agreement going through following a wave of complaints, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the latest major figure to speak out against the whole idea as she opened the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair a few days ago.

I’m very aware that what I’ve written here is less than an iceberg tip of a very large and complex subject and I could easily spend months researching the various implications. There are, for instance, questions of privacy and confidentiality in accessing the planned book repository, questions about whether Google is trying to make profit from out of print books, and probably many more.

The trouble is we’ve already allowed Pandora’s Box to be opened by allowing the copying in the first place – mesmerised by Google’s self-appointed task to index all the information in the world. What gives them the right to do that? And what do we do if they succeed and establish a monopoly? So just this once I reckon I’m happy to see a media mogul go up against them if it means that this whole subject gets a thorough airing and people and governments realise the implications of allowing copyright to be ignored.

Another Literary Loss

Add comment September 15th, 2009

Today saw an announcement of a further reduction in Edinburgh’s once famous publishing industry. The offices of Chambers, respected worldwide for their dictionaries and established way back in 1819 by brothers William and Robert Chambers, are to close. 27 staff will be affected and the remainder of the work will move to London.

Thus is cut another tie to the literary past – Chambers were the publishers of the Songs of Robert Burns amongst many important works. I remember when it was common to see their dictionaries in school classrooms and I think my dad still has the big thick dictionary he bought to help with my studies when I was young.

Apparently the heads of Chambers Harrap, as the company has been for some time, tried to sell it but couldn’t find a buyer. It seems we all use the internet for reference material these days and sales of dictionaries have declined markedly.

A sad day, and I fear my old boss Jimmy Thin will be spinning in his grave.

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