I have been struggling with ways to make print copies of The PricelessPrincess available in Australia. I have obtained quotes from commercial printers which will produce a much better quality product, but at a far greater cost than the simple print-on-demand copies I have paid for from Createspace. I wanted to get some copies into bookshops, so children who like the book in their school library can get someone to buy them a copy. Bookshops want books produced with higher quality. The cost of local printing is astronomically greater than the Createspace versions. The bookshops want a percentage of course and the final cost to the customer seems pretty high. I don’t think children, or their parents, particularly care about the quality of the paper or the type of glue used on the binding, but bookshops do.
Happily though the print-on-demand version is now available through Book Depository. So anyone can order it from there the same as any other published book.
But if you would like to buy one, or two, or more copies you can order them direct from the Princess’s website, here. Special offer on now: a personally signed copy, posted anywhere in Australia, for $14.99. Although the main character is a girl, boys are loving the story too. They like the young Wizard of Spume.
The best thing about getting older is realising that others are getting older at the same rate, especially your favourite writers. They’ve been writing for years and years, and you’ve been reading away alongside. In traditional publishing it means that they write and you read at different moments of the Zeitgeist, so you experience them in different ways according to where you both are. Helen’s recent book of essays Everywhere I Look felt both familiar and dazzlingly fresh. Preoccupied with my current volume of memoirs, this and the publication of Bernadette Brennan’s study of Helen’s work (more on which in another post), sent me scurrying off to rediscover her work in the present moment, 2017.
A lot is now available on Kindle. I had purchased her print books over many years but most had gone off into the mysterious places books go when you move your stuff around a lot. Now I could repurchase and reread all at once. Yes, it is a Kindle binge. A wonderful short novella about a trip to the Antarctic was the first surprise: I had never heard of it before. I reread The First Stone and This House of Grief and The Spare Room and then I came to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I had never read before..
What can I say? Absolutely riveting, so moving, so saturated with a personal truth which is at the same time a collective experience of being “us”, people in Australia, experiencing things in different ways, and it is these differences which Helen tries to clarify and explore but in the end the mysteries of human behaviour defeat explanation or even understanding.It is great that Helen is getting the praise she deserves in the US at last. Reading some of the reviews on Kindle is sobering, though. They are not negative, rather, puzzled, a bit confused. Why is it that some writing travels seamlessly through English-language markets while other books falter? Why was The Dry such a hit in the US? Why does Liane Moriarty work everywhere?
I hope a lot of people discover and rediscover Helen Garner now. Nobody could have guessed back in Monkey Grip days what she would become. If you could give a medal to an Australian writer, Helen should be first on the dais.
It’s been a while and I’ve been through a lot in the writing and publishing world lately. I’ve been thinking about new strategies, doing a lot of editing, and working on the Memoirs. This has led to a long silence on the blog.
But I was moved to write today by yet another story about a writer who wanted to be published, had parted with a lot of money thinking it was to a “real” publisher, only to discover that although her book – an illustrated children’s book – was lovely, no bookstores would stock it.
Ever since I launched myself into this world I have become aware of the many people who want to be writers and are determined to do it. Social media has made it so much easier to get in touch with these people and get to know them online. So many are looking for support and advice, but almost everything they can learn about the process leads them to part with their money. Advice to self-publishers is everywhere but so much of it is motivated by someone offering a service. It is obvious that a huge market exists and a lot of writers have discovered that there’s more money to be made by “helping” others publish their books than by publishing their own.
IF YOU ALREADY KNOW ALL ABOUT THIS STUFF, DON’T BOTHER READING ON. But if you are pretty confused about what is involved in getting your book out into the world, you might find a bit of clarity here. It is based in part on my own experience, as well as looking into the minefield of services on offer to would-be authors which are getting more difficult to understand by the day.
You can get your book published entirely by yourself, if you have the skills. You start with a manuscript you have written. It will have to be written on a computer in a recognised program such as Word which is the standard. If you are still writing by hand on a yellow note-pad, you’ll have to pay to have it typed up.
What you need at the end of the day is a set of files in multiple formats. In theory you can do all of this yourself and it will cost you nothing, or almost nothing (some distributors such as Ingram Spark require a payment for each book being uploaded to your account). The files have to be laid out in particular ways and conform to certain requirements. If you only want ebooks they can be loaded one by one to different distributors or you can use an aggregator service. Your ebook can become a print book using Amazon’s Create Space or another print on demand service. Once the files are ready and in an acceptable form, you have a book all ready to go, it has cost you nothing to produce, you load your files onto the sales site and sit back and wait for someone to order it online through Amazon, Kobo, I-books or some other site.
You may have ordered some print copies for your friends and family and be happy to hold your real, printed book in your hands. Does it look as good as the book you paid $30 for at the bookshop? Probably not. The paper will be thinner, the interior layout may be boring or clunky, and looking at the cover it doesn’t look quite how you expected. But still, it does look like a book and you know it’s great. But it won’t get into the bookshop, it won’t be reviewed in the paper, and nobody will get to hear about it unless you yourself undertake a crash course in Internet marketing because that is the only way it will actually exist for your readers.
Some people think that bookshops won’t take books printed by POD technologies. Print on Demand (POD) means a copy is made only when it is ordered. This is a huge advantage since there is no need to print multiple copies in advance, to store and ship them. Traditional publishers may use POD technologies for books which do go into bookshops, and it is not use of that technology is the problem or that makes it unacceptable to bookshops.
It is the fact that the book has not entered the circulatory system of traditional publishing which was designed a hundred years ago and has hardly changed since. This requires a manuscript to pass through multiple selection channels. Most publishers won’t take a book unless it has been referred to them by an agent. Even where they will accept a submission, it will be read by someone very low down the totem pole. Some say that 90% of manuscripts are rejected by the end of the first page, and 98% by the end of the first chapter. There is a network of connections which create mutually agreed standards or expectations for what kind of book is worth publishing, when and by whom.
Self-publishing has been seen as a way to get around the archaic and outdated structures which still prevail. But it’s damned hard to do on your own. Not surprisingly many authors seek help to get their manuscript into an acceptable form. There are all kind of services offering to help you. They may offer to edit, to create your book cover, get all the files into the correct formats and then they may actually upload the files for you. You can engage and pay a different professional to help with any of these tasks, or you can find a single company who outsources the work or does it in-house. Most of them offer several options, or packages, which get more expensive as they include more items. It’s easy to see why many choose to go with the company which offers a comprehensive service even if it costs them up to several thousands of dollars.
But when you do it this way, you are still a self-publisher.
Hang on! That’s not what you had in mind. You want a publisher! Here is where the real danger lies. There are an increasing number of organisations which call themselves publishers and will accept your manuscript for publication. They have a name, Suchansuch Publishers or Ifonly Books. They will produce print and often ebook versions as well. They advertise on the web, you will find them whenever you Google “Publishers”. Wow, you think, I have a publisher. The catch is, they will ask you for money. A lot of money. They may produce a near-perfect book, far better than the book you can produce on Create Space or through Ingram Spark. They may even offer to market your book for extra money. But still your book will not appear in the bookshops.
Because you paid for it. The entire structure of book publishing prevents these kinds of books from entering into commercial circulation. The publisher has to pay you – usually what’s known as an advance, which used to commonly be between $5000 and $10000 (if you are lucky). You don’t get any royalties back until that full cost has been recovered by the publisher. If a publisher offers to publish you for money they are by definition not a “real” publisher and you won’t ever get your money back. Most people who publish this way finish up with a garage full of printed books which they cannot sell.
The rise of self-publishing has meant that anybody who wants to publish a book can do so. But that does not mean that anybody can be a recognised author whose books will be found in a bookshop. The many inexperienced writers who don’t realise this are easy prey for those who can convince them otherwise. Almost all the books by self-published authors are sold on Amazon, mostly for $2.99 or less. Some cover their costs and make some profit but many don’t. Becoming a best-selling author on Amazon has become ever more difficult. There are two or more million titles now and each year thousands more are added.
A recent phenomenon is the way traditional publishers issue ebook versions of their conventionally published books through Amazon Kindle and others. At one time, the Kindle versions only turned up a year or more after the print books came out. Now the are issued more or less at the same time, but the publishers set a very high price, way above anything normally found on Kindle. This happened after a bitter court case brought by international giant Hachette against Amazon. The authors of the books don’t make any more out of it than they do from the print book – say, 10% in royalty payments – and the publishers keep the rest. The purchaser buys a book which has been publicised through the conventional means. So a two-tier structure is emerging in the e-book market where self-published books are super cheap, or even free, and buyers are purchasing conventionally published books at prices well above anything they would normally pay for an ebook. This may be reinforcing the power of traditional publishers and making self-published books very much second (or third? or fourth?) class citizens.
Without extensive marketing using all the bells and whistles of the Internet (Facebook groups, Good Reads, BookBub, paid review sites, email groups, increasingly Twitter and Instagram) very few self-published authors make it. There are spectacular exceptions which I will write about in another post. But the thousands of would-be authors who don’t know better, especially older people who don’t have much idea of how the new digital landscape works, are easy marks for those who offer the hope of authorship, especially the dream of “real” publishing.
So no matter how much you want to be an author, don’t part with any money until you fully understand what is being offered. Just because someone says they are a Publisher does not mean they can help you become an Author.
Advice for writers always includes something about how to deal with writer’s block, as if it’s something like the common cold or a pernicious case of athlete’s foot. I have never really understood this, as most of my life I have been unable to stop writing even when I should know better.
However I think I have just developed a case of something like it and I don’t know how it has happened or what to do about it. I am as usual writing and writing – for instance, I am writing this very piece – and I am doing research for various projects I am in the middle of and I have started revising a lot of stuff on my blogs but I am definitely avoiding the one thing I really need to write, the thing I need to finish so I can actually get on with the next thing and then start something absolutely fresh. It must mean something … but what?
I have been working on a book of short stories, some of which were written years ago while others are brand new or radically revised. Some are quite long, almost novella length, others are super-short. I’m planning both e-book and paperback releases through Amazon and Ingram Spark. Maybe I’ll get a local printer to do a quality small run for the Australian market. Everything is ready for a final assembly and edit BUT there’s this one story I just can’t finish. It’s been through several versions, the main character has had several names and a variety of backstories, the key issues have changed several times, the narrative has shifted, her late husband has oscillated between being a stuffy idiot, a self-important moron and an OK kind of guy … and now I have her in the middle of the story and something really dramatic has to start happening to her and I just can’t get it moving.
So I wake up first thing in the morning determined to finish the story but instead I start looking at note I was writing about something else and then I’m looking at emails or trying to upload a pdf or whatever and two hours pass and then I have to start doing something else and my quality writing time is over so I say I’ll get back to it later in the day but it doesn’t happen, and then it’s night time and tomorrow is another day and I am sure I will finish it then but guess what? No luck …
Yes, it’s procrastination but something more as well. Is it some deep-seated psychological resistance to actually finishing this book and actually publishing it? Do I doubt the value of this story in particular, or the collection as a whole?
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. I certainly don’t feel anything like indescribable terror. I’m just cross with myself for having constructed what feels like a wall between myself as a writer and the end of this story. Meanwhile Louisa, my character, is stranded in her luxurious hotel room in Bangkok waiting for her cosmetic surgical scars to heal. Poor thing.
In recent posts I have been lamenting the problem of not being able to get printed copies of books from Createspace produced in Australia. If you want your own copies eg to sell from your website (or car boot) or to use for publicity you have to ship them in from the US.
So I thought I’d try Ingram Spark since they print in Australia.
Good idea – but the Createspace files were not compatible. Resave in a different PDF format please! OK, but you can’t do that yourself unless you are working on a PC. On a Mac, you have to do it through Adobe. So long-suffering Keith my illustrator did it for me but when it was loaded to Ingram Spark the colour went red, the result of saving in the PDF X-1a format and/or their colour and printing machines. Sorry, they said, you’ll have to modify the files. But the problem doesn’t show up when we open them!
So being a strong supporter of “act local” I found a printer and asked for a quote to produce the same product but on better paper and in the original colour format using the Createspace PDFs. It has taken more than a week and still I haven’t found a way to get the original PDF for the cover to go to this printer. I send the file by email and it turns into a jpeg. I send it in what I think is the original PDF version from my Mediafire site and he says it won’t let him access it. I change the settings on the Mediafire site and send directly from that and he still doesn’t get it. How much more of this can I take?
So I go back and take another look at the costs of ordering the books from Createspace vs Ingram Spark. And guess what? For The Priceless Princess the printing cost from Ingram Spark is higher than the cost from Createspace. Ingram Spark printing cost per unit is A$3.47, CS printing cost per unit is US$2.15 = A$2.91. So the saving as a result of lower shipping costs is undercut by the higher printing costs. Mind you, if the covers were as good as the Create Space ones it would still have been a worthwhile saving.
Going nuts, as I really need print copies in my hand, I just decided to order from Createspace and pay the extra shipping costs. At least the covers will come out right. And I’ll press on with the local printer and see if he can come up with a better better quality book for around the same total price. If I could just get the damn file to him! The problem is, I thought I was supposed to write all day, not do all this whatever you call it. My body, my feelings, my consciousness … now I’m dreaming about PDFs.
The Priceless Princess has been available for sale through Amazon for several months now. It was my first venture into self-publishing and I knew it would be a learning experience. And how! As I lamented earlier, I enrolled it in KDP Select, which means the e-book can’t be distributed outside the Amazon Kindle environment. Because it was in Select it meant that people with a subscription could download it as part of their service. All good, except that now authors are paid by the page read and the book is only 106 pages long – it is after all a children’s book. Quite a few readers have chosen it but being paid by the page it’s made almost nothing in dollar terms. Books stay in KDP Select for 90 days and I missed the deadline to get it off there so now I’m stuck with it until June and can’t use any other e-book distributor.
What about a print book? Would anybody buy that? I had a Create Space version printed and it came out beautifully. No sales, because it was free in KDP Select I guess, or maybe it was too expensive. Nobody in Australia would pay the postage. I ordered 50 copies for my own distribution purposes but that cost a small fortune in freight from the US which is the only way to get the books to Australia.
Amazon’s Create Space has no presence in Australia: you can’t get books printed here. If Australian readers want a print copy they have to pay the exorbitant cost of postage from the US. Amazon’s Australian Site: Authors Beware
Why didn’t I know this? It is obvious that most people in Australia, especially when buying children’s books, only want printed copies. Nobody here buys their kids a Kindle for Christmas (they do in the US apparently). I wanted to be able to distribute the print version through my website, put copies into schools as donations and do various other things so people in Australia could buy it.
So I followed everyone’s advice and went with Ingram Spark since they print in Australia and I could get print copies from them in bulk for a lower freight cost. And they distributed everywhere. But they wouldn’t use the same Create Space PDF files, the files had to be saved in a different PDF form, the very early x-1A or whatever it is. Finally got Keith to redo/resave the files, they were accepted by IS, then I had to pay $15 to get one copy to examine (by courier – what is wrong with using Australia Post?) and then I discover that the front cover in printing has shifted to the red spectrum and the Priceless Princess’s gorgeous face is now extremely flushed.
So I ask IS why this is since the art work is identical with what went to CS and I receive a prompt reply saying all printing machinery is different and they cannot guarantee any particular colour outcome or that it will match that printed elsewhere and I have to get the files redone to compensate for their machines.
But how? Nobody can see what the problem is on the artwork files, which look identical on both PDFs.
So now I have a very red-faced Priceless Princess circulating around the world, a very frustrated illustrator who doesn’t know how to help, and a particularly irritated author who is now trying to find a local printer who can use the original Create Space files and hopefully provide a better quality paper at the same time for a reasonable price so I can do my own local distribution.
Online technology obviously doesn’t combine well with legacy printing. The online world doesn’t mesh with traditional reader behaviour. A lot more work needs to be done to find some better alternatives. Meanwhile everyone under 30 is reading free books on their mobile phones. Is this a losers’ game or what?
Sometimes books appear and you know right away you want to read them. Nikki Gemmell is already a very well-known writer, with a lively career as a magazine journalist as well as ten plus full-length books, the best known being her first, The BrideStripped Bare. I have to confess it is the only one I have read. I’m not quite sure why. Her books seem to fall between a few stools: genre fiction, literary fiction, self-help, essay.
But her new book, After, is definitely in my territory. Memoir, true story, traumatic experience, mothers and daughters. I’ve already written my own version, about the death of my mother and my ex-husband within three weeks of each other back in 2008. I wrote it not long after but haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and edit it, let alone publish it. But it is on my list and should be finished by mid-year. I don’t think it will be much like Nikki’s book.
Nikki’s mother chose to die; mine didn’t. My mother never intended to die, ever, and the stupid accident which killed her could easily have been avoided. She was 93; she might conceivably even be alive today if she hadn’t lost her dentures. But that is my story, this is about Nikki’s, sort of, but not really, because I haven’t read it.
Tomorrow we are going to hear her talk about her book at a “meet the author” event in Katoomba, courtesy of the wonderful Gleebooks in Blackheath and Varuna Writer’s Centre. I have been looking forward to it. It’s so much better when you have read the book being discussed. So I did what I always do, and looked for it in a Kindle version from Amazon. Yes, it was there, so that was good, until I looked at the price. $14.99. In hardcover it’s $22.50. There doesn’t seem to be a paperback. What? Yes, it’s Harper Collins’ strategy to get you to buy the hardcover, or at least to stop you buying the e-book. Who would pay $15, even if it’s a great book and you really want to read it? And who is getting the lion’s share of the inflated e-book price? You can bet it’s not Nikki. No, for those who do pay for the e-book, Harper Collins will get the major part of it, even though their production cost for putting it up on Amazon as an e-book is probably near zero, since all the editing was done for the print version, the marketing costs cover both, and tweaking an already existing cover design for Kindle is so easy a kindergarten child could do it these days.
Sorry, Nikki, but I guess I won’t be reading your book for quite a while. I can put my name down for it at the local library, or maybe I will find some friend who has bought the hardcover. But I will not buy any more hardcover (or print) books unless they absolutely cannot be obtained any other way and I really really need them. And although I’m sure your book will be great, I just won’t support greedy publishers who expect readers to cough up absurdly high prices just to keep their existing legacy business model going. Just a reminder: when you “buy” an e-book you don’t really “buy” it in the traditional sense. It isn’t yours. The company who release it can remove it at any time. You can’t lend it to anybody else. You can’t give it away as a present. You are just hiring it. A price above $10.00 is wholly unjustifiable.
Came across a book yesterday which brought into focus something that has been bugging me for ages. Blake Atwood’s Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why every authorneeds an editor is squarely aimed at the new writer, especially the new Indie writer – although any writer who has an editor will be enlightened by it.
It is a seriously good book, with lots of recommendations about how authors and editors can get on better together. But it made me feel very weird.
There are hundreds of books on Kindle right now and maybe thousands of blog posts directed at the emerging author who plans to self-publish. All this advice should help the publishing process and make the written work as good as it can be and therefore produce sales and success. Two recommendations stand out: get a professional cover designer! get a professional editor!
Cover designer, for sure. Unless you are great with Photoshop or comfortable with digital design software such as Canva, it’s not easy to get a great-looking cover. Of course there are now many automated genre cover services, where you buy a standard design and put your title and name on the front. Fair enough, as long as everyone else hasn’t chosen the same design. As time goes by and the competition on Kindle gets more intense, authors are feeling pressured to hire more and more services. Is it really making a difference to the quality of self-published books?
Editing? It’s obvious that many new indie writers haven’t followed that piece of advice. I download and read book after book by new or unknown (to me) indie authors. It’s pretty clear that the book hasn’t been edited properly or at all. My first reaction is always irritation, even exasperation. A good premise self-destructs in an incoherent plot. Not just one or a few but scores of grammatical errors make the book unreadable. A few typos? OK. But one or two on every page? No thanks. This book joins the others in my library with the dreaded “30%” score (or less). Just couldn’t be bothered finishing it. Why does this happen?
There are three kinds of editing: developmental, which picks up on structural flaws and can result in a total rewrite; copyediting, attending closely to grammar, expression and sentence structure to make the work “correct”; and proofreading to pick up those last typos or whatever. Great! But soon the penniless hopeful discovers that an editor expects to be paid separately for each of these and some only specialize in one. Atwood is mainly a copyeditor. Editing costs seem incredible. Over a thousand dollars for just one of these edits is common.
But hang on a minute. Why aren’t the authors writing their books properly in the first place? Why can’t they edit themselves? Is it that many writers can’t in fact write? And if editors do as much on a manuscript as they claim to do, who is really the author?
I was amazed when I realized the extent to which fiction was edited. Having published around one hundred academic papers, I was used to a certain level of editorial intervention, usually to provide clarity or reduce jargon or introduce some additional analytic viewpoint in a footnote. But the idea that someone would virtually re-write your whole paper, changing your intention, re-organizing the flow of argument, removing whole sections, deleting punctuation marks and in effect taking over the construction of your work was unthinkable. You were the writer. Anyone who hired someone else to do all that made the work fraudulent. It just wasn’t your work any more. If your journal editor, having accepted your paper, chose to use an editor to make significant changes, that was an acceptable cost of being published in prestigious journals. But paying for it yourself?
The world of commercial publishing seems to take a high level of editorial intervention for granted. One of the first things in traditional publishing was to assign an editor to an author. Sometimes authors mention their editor by name, more often than not the existence of that person is completely hidden. Why? If an editor has had so much input into your work, then why isn’t that person acknowledged as a kind of author – if not a co-author, perhaps a writing associate? While it is obvious that proof-reading and minor corrections will always be required, how can the interventions of a copyeditor, let alone a developmental editor, entirely unacknowledged, be justified?
There are a set of conventions about writing which increasingly determine what will be accepted as “good” in its field. Genre fiction is one thing, literary fiction another. The hidden truth is that literary fiction is largely for people with a better education. Hundreds of Amazon reviews moan and whinge about “big words” or books being “too hard to read”. I just last night read a review which gave one star to a book because of the long words in it. The writer complained that it claimed to be a thriller but really it was a book for the “literary elite”.
Traditional publishing kept control over writing and reading by maintaining a reasonable level of quality control over what was published. And editing was key to this process. Even popular thrillers and romances were edited to maintain something like an acceptable standard of literacy. Indie publishing has thrown that out the window. Anyone can write and publish anything. This seems powerfully democratic. But is there a necessary standard for writing? Shouldn’t books be literate, even if they are not literary?
What if authors don’t agree with their editors? Blogs and forums are full of horror stories about new writers paying editors thousands of dollars only to find their recommendations unacceptable. If you have a contract with a publisher then the editors is likely to be the winner in a catfight. If the author is paying the editor directly, what then?
If you look closely at the advice to new writers, the people who write about how badly you need an editor are almost always editors themselves. It seems that they are right. Like Atwood, many have also published books on how to publish books. That is a good marketing strategy, especially with the bottomless pit of would-be authors filling up by the day. But new writers don’t want to spend money. They just want to write their books and publish them. Hmm. A problem: nobody wants to buy them. Read the forums where countless authors complain that nobody has bought their books. So they are encouraged to give their books away free, or almost so. What kind of product is this?
You can get ultra-cheap editing, of course. Thanks to the internet someone on the other side of the world can be your editor. So what if their English isn’t too great! They can do your “updation”, your Head-Noting and even write your blog!
It’s a minefied. I don’t want to read books which have been radically altered by an editor. I want to read what that particular author says, and to see exactly how she or he says it. It’s part of the fun of reading. If the writing is bad, so bad that I can’t enjoy the book, then I won’t buy anything from that author again. On the other hand, so many new authors write such bad books. They have awful holes in the plot or drag on too long or have blatant unexplained contradictions, and I know how much better the book could have been if someone had “edited” – in effect re-written – it.
I feel sorry for these authors. I don’t want to discourage them, so I don’t leave negative reviews. Neither does anyone else. Without an editor, or some form of independent feedback, how are authors to know their books are just not good enough? Then again, I feel sorry for their editors, if they are eventually hired. Working on badly written manuscripts, toiling over silly or boring or pompous or pointless stories and trying to make them better must be one of the most soul-destroying forms of employment imaginable – a marriage made in purgatory. [Hey, there’s a concept: a writer and an editor locked up in some horrific warehouse, in a remote derelict landscape (think Tarkovsky), going to suffer a gruesome fate if they can’t agree on final edits. If you want to develop it, let’s collaborate!]
Proofreading is another thing. Everyone needs a proof-reader. Errors creep in, typos happen and the malign influence of the spell-checker has to be remedied. I don’t know how necessary it is to hire a professional proof-reader. Maybe any two or three people who are good readers would do.
What do you think? Should editors be acknowledged, perhaps by name, when they have been hired to work on a book? Or should writers just learn to write better in the first place?
Imagine writing a thousand page novel which everybody hates.
Following my long-standing interest in German art, especially my work on Neo Rauch and Gerhard Richter, I decided to see what had been going on in the German novel lately. I cruised through a few lists looking for something that piqued my interest. I chose and ordered a few from Book Depository which has a great European language selection. Being hasty and lazy, I based my choice on review comments and catalogue descriptions without looking carefully into details. I can read in German, but slowly. I came across one which was highly praised – by the publishers, as it turned out. It won the German Book Prize in 2008. Der Turm (The Tower) by Uwe Tellkamp offers a “monumental panorama” of the former DDR (East Germany) across three generations in decaying Dresden. Sounded good to me, if a bit intense. I put it with the order, which will arrive in a week or so. I discovered that there is an English translation, published by Penguin in 2014, but I wanted to do the German thing. Why not?
Well, one reason might be that the book is around 1000 pages long, and that’s in paperback. I hadn’t realized that when I bought it. Since I read mostly in bed, this is exactly the kind of book I vowed and declared I would never buy again, once the miracle of Kindle turned up. (German books aren’t available on Kindle, or if they are I can’t work out how to buy them). I can’t even imagine how to physically manage reading a book of this size in bed. I realized I had made a stupid and expensive mistake, but by then it was too late.
A day or so later I realized this simple purchasing episode clarified some things about myself which annoy me so much, the stuff in my auto-critique basket. Lack of careful attention to what I am doing. Impulsiveness. Ordering things online at midnight. Ignoring my own resolutions. And because I have been reading obsessively in the genre of subjective non- or semi-fiction (Knausgaard and now Carrère) I kept finding myself composing paragraphs about how this was actually a signal to me about myself, something I really should pay attention to, a message from the Great Beyond or maybe it’s the Deep Inside, the Unconscious.
Finally, though, I realized that my biggest mistake was not reading any actual reviews before I bought the damn thing. Cripes! It seems to be the most incredibly boring book that anyone has ever come across. Although the publisher’s blurb and remarks by a few London-based literati suggested it was an “epic” exploration, on the English-language Goodreads site there were 56 reviews and all of them were one star, which is the lowest you can give. And several of these were in German. I have never before seen such revulsion and disdain. Here’s what some said: “I just can’t get past the ridiculous writing style and overblown descriptions in this book … spurious, convoluted and self-congratulatory”. “A thousand-page cringe fest, arid scenes from the lives of the lifeless”. “Absolutely terrible!” Lots of people left no comment, only their voluble single star.
How would you feel, writing a book so unbelievably long, which all your readers seemingly hate? I mean it’s hard enough to get people to review your books in the first place, but what if they’re all totally negative? Is it better to be ignored or condemned? Then again, how does such a book even get published? There are thousands of writers all over the world, struggling along day after day, approaching agents and publishers with panting enthusiasm, only to be rejected time and again, consigned to the slush pile and thence to the Kindle quagmire, if they can even get that far. And here is someone who writes and writes and writes in a turgid prose with achingly dull detail and not only is he published in both English and German but he wins a prize. Go figure!
Well it took six long days but I finally unpacked my new Kindle Fire HD 2016 8 inch and after the usual struggles with passwords and buttons and chargers it lit up, and what a pretty ***** it is. Actually I am not sure what it is – a thing? a device? a machine? Just another object? Yes, it is an object, but an object which reaches into the very depths of a writer’s being – this one’s, anyway.
Ridiculous, I know, but the whole time I didn’t have a Kindle I couldn’t seem to write a word. I carried around the print-out of latest version of Suburban Gigolo wherever I went, thinking I could start the next round of edits, but there was just something wrong. Didn’t even take it out of its brown paper bag. Night after night I re-tilted my bedside lamp and focussed my eyes on the printed pages of Emmanuel Carrere’s Liminov. I am really enjoying this book, in a strange abstract way, but the process of reading doesn’t feel the same. And if I can’t read, it seems I can’t write.
While I was recently in hospital I couldn’t read either, not because I didn’t have my Kindle – I did, it goes everywhere with me – but because I was so knocked out by the drugs and the pain and the numbing routine and the astonishing reality of having a metal knee now embedded and growing in my bones and flesh there seemed no mind-space left over for reading books.
However I became addicted to that enlightening TV show “Diagnosis Murder” about how a doctor (a spritely white-haired Dick van Dyke) helps his detective son (played by Dick van Dyke’s own real-life son Barry) solve strange criminal cases which embrace medical issues.
This was on every afternoon and I lay on my back gazing at the TV screen up on the wall and felt both cheered and reassured by the ability of doctors and detectives to solve all human problems, as they were still able to do in the early 1990s, unlike today where the crimes are so much more hideous and the main role for the medical specialists is scraping up samples from torn fingernails and cutting cadavers open with wryly humorous remarks.
But TV in the end is no substitute for reading, and now I have a Kindle again I can read all the books I recently downloaded just before it finally died. These include the only book by Carrere which I can find on Kindle, The Kingdom, yet another excursus into the world of the first Christians, a theme which seems to have been trending recently, no doubt due to the near universal perception of imminent apocalypse. I even started watching A.D. the Bible Continues (2015) on Stan but that otherworldly gleam in Peter’s eyes is really getting me down. Actually I thought the first three episodes were excellent, but it became a bit repetitive after that.
The thing is, you live with stories, and it matters how they reach you. TV has become a wonderful medium now that you can watch series the same way you read a book … you don’t have to wait until next week’s broadcast, you can just keep on and on and on until you absolutely have to get up and go to Aldi or clean up the cat vomit. Then the clever TV knows exactly where you got up to, and takes you directly back there. Just like the Kindle does.
I can feel myself falling in love with my new Kindle, even though I’ve hardly even turned it on yet. What creates this powerful attraction? A lot of people have it with their mobile phones, almost unable to be diverted from them even by great moments in the Real World such as picking up your children from school. The recent campaign in Britain to get parents to actually look at their child when they pick the poor little thing up at the school gate marks just one moment in the process of human alienation we are in the midst of.
How to think about these object-obsessions? To cut a long psychoanalytic story short, it is a kind of transitional object. You know, the blanket the child carries around until it decays, the beaten up teddy bear, the Thing your little one just can’t be without. Some clever evil genius worked out that we never grow up, we humans, we go on looking for the comforts of childhood, and these days they’ve given us an electronic item instead of Blanky. I’m not the first to think of this, although I did feel disappointed when I found this quote:
The thing about electronic objects though is that they just don’t feel the same . How about making Kindle or phone cases out of woven feathers? I had a kind of feathered scarf when I was a small child and yes, obviously it came from my mother, and I needed it in the same way I seem to need my Kindle now. I just can’t go to bed without it, and if that happens then I can’t seem to write anything the next day. What The ????