Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

pulling teeth

Posted by on December 6th, 2013

I discovered this article today, written by everyone’s favourite Creepy Old Rich White Man Living in Thailand, in which I am name-checked. Here are a few choice quotes:

“Writing should be fun. If it isn’t fun, you really shouldn’t be doing it. A horror writer by the name of Steve Mosby recently complained on Twitter that he found writing like pulling teeth.  My reaction to that – if it’s that painful, you shouldn’t be doing it. Mosby spends a lot of time tweeting about how hard he finds it to write his books, and how much effort he has to put into rewriting them.”

and

“I have enjoyed writing every single Spider Shepherd book – not one of them has been the equivalent of pulling teeth.”

Well, bully for you, sunshine. Let’s leave aside the obvious retort – that just because writing them wasn’t the equivalent of pulling teeth doesn’t mean reading them won’t be – and move onto the meat of the issue. Did I say that I found writing to be like pulling teeth? Yes and no. I actually remember this, as I noticed Mr Leather making one of his standard passive-aggressive references to it shortly afterwards, and what I actually said was that writing on that particular day had been like pulling teeth. An exaggeration, of course, but not a massive one.

And that happens quite a lot for me. I imagine it’s the same for many writers (certainly, anecdotally, I believe that to be true). After all, writing is not just typing, not if you care about it. You’re trying to convey the idea of what you have in your head through words, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. That applies not just at the level of sentences and scenes, but across the entire story, which at book length is likely to be structurally complicated, thematically intricate and difficult to hold in your head as a whole and coherent narrative. There are going to be good days and bad days. I have far more of the latter, especially in the end stages where the slightest tug on one narrative strand can dislodge another from the knot.

All writers have different approaches – and congratulations to Mr Leather for enjoying his work so much, as nobody would wish him ill – but mine is a more complicated affair. As I’ve said before, I usually write with a vague outline, and at the end of my first draft I realise what the book should have been about all along. So I rewrite, and I refine. The book goes through various iterations as I add, delete and shift scenes about. Characters vanish and reappear. Things get dropped and things get added. Other writers are more straightforward, but that’s the way I work: my books tend to begin as exceptionally blurry photographs, and then every draft sharpens the image a little more. For me, this tends to exacerbate the good day/bad day problem I mentioned above, but the bad days don’t make me any more unhappy than the good ones. That’s because I know they’re both equally important to the process. I work hard at my writing because I care about it.

So, do I spend “a lot of time tweeting about how hard [I find] it to write [my] books, and how much effort [I have] to put into rewriting them”? Well, not really (although I wouldn’t be ashamed if I did). My tweets are generally about my mundane life and opinions, mixed in with retweets to left-leaning articles and dick jokes. I don’t tweet about writing much, but it’s a social media channel, and I am honest when I’m using it. If I’m having a good day, I say so. If I’m having a bad one, likewise. Because I’m a writer, writing will crop up. I don’t tweet because I’m trying to build up a false image of myself, or sell things to people. Although obviously – in social media as in writing books – other authors will have very different approaches.

“I think the fact that I enjoy writing so much is reflected in the quality of my work – I do very little rewriting and my publisher generally has little to do in the way of editing.”

And this is interesting, simply because it seems so obviously, palpably false. It’s not even the faux machismo (“I don’t need any editing! I’m a machine!”) but the general thesis. I would actually say the opposite is true in my experience: that the enjoyment I take from a writing day is utterly unconnected to how good the work that day really is. How egotistical and solipsistic to think otherwise. I’ve done good work on subjectively bad days and vice versa. Why should my enjoyment in writing a passage necessarily translate to someone else’s pleasure in reading it? How naive and self-centred to imagine that might be true. And I welcome editorial input and suggestion, as it has – with no exceptions – improved all my books, and caused me to raise my game. But then, as we’ve probably realised by now, other authors have very different approaches. So it goes.

Amazon, Kobo and freedom of speech

Posted by on October 16th, 2013

At the time of writing, the WHSmith website remains down, Barnes & Noble are “removing” material, Waterstones are “investigating”, and Amazon, characteristically silent, are culling titles. The reason for this is a proliferation of self-published pornographic ebooks dealing with incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality and rape. You’re probably aware of the background by now, but here is a potted history of the ongoing situation, along with some relevant links.

Following the revelation that there was such a thing as dinosaur porn online, we all laughed a bit and vomited a bit. Having tweeted about that, the writer Jeremy Duns began looking into related material, on the basis that: a) werewolf porn is basically bestiality, so what else is out there; and b) this kind of shit has darkened the corridors of the left room before, and Jeremy was involved with that. This led to a Kernel article about the offending material, along with a (then) list of some of the grimmer titles on offer (trigger warning), which was then picked up by the Daily Mail, and other news outlets. Everything then basically caught fire and exploded. Online ebook sellers have been scrabbling to get rid of the titles, with varying degrees of both success and proportionality. A lot of perfectly ‘innocent’ erotica (and non-erotica) appears to have been caught in the crossfire, Kobo have indicated they’re temporarily removing all self-published ebooks, and many people are furious.

The two most important questions about this whole issue are fundamentally boring. The first question is: “Are these books against the law?”. The second is: “Do the companies want to stock them?”. These are  boring questions because they have fairly straightforward yes/no answers that completely resolve the issue. In the first case, a yes would mean a responsibility to remove the books in question, while the latter would allow it regardless.

The End. Nothing more to see here.

A third question is whether a company’s approach to removing the material is sensible, reasonable and proportionate. In an old job, I would occasionally build databases, and it was always a nightmare when you were required to add to them on an ad hoc basis, because you invariably ended up with an unwieldy beast of a thing. From the front end, it might do everything it was supposed to, but you were only ever one urgent change, one addition or subtraction, away from having to say: “No, sorry. It simply won’t do what you suddenly want it to, because you didn’t build that feature in at ground level”. I get the impression that certain companies may have charged into the digital fray equipped with the equivalent of such a database. Certainly, WHSmith.co.uk has been offline for several days now (and will have lost millions of pounds as a result), all to remove a small handful of titles; you imagine that’s not by choice. Equally, Kobo’s removal of all self-published titles, however temporary, inevitably comes across as a kind of desperate and ill-prepared flailing, as though they only remembered to start installing delete buttons from the fifth floor up.

On a related note, it’s interesting to read Selena Kitt’s post, which mentions another ‘new’ way in which epublishing platforms are effectively being gamed. From sockpuppetry to review factories and beyond, I’m increasingly reminded (perhaps appropriately) of the brave new technology of Jurassic Park, where all the dinosaurs are the same sex, so they can’t possibly breed, and so everything will be fine. Except of course, someone didn’t do their research, and in reality you generally can’t predict the flaws and problems in a new system until they appear and you’re forced to deal with them.

All that aside, if those are the boring questions, what are the interesting ones? Well, I’d say they revolve less around “is it” and “do they” and more around “should it be” and “should they”.

Let’s take the latter first. Any company is free to choose the items it sells: there can surely be no argument there. If Amazon don’t wish to sell pornographic titles then there is no obligation for them to do so. Certain considerations aside, any supplier is free to choose its stock, so Kobo is no more obliged to provide self-publishers with a platform than your neighbour is. A fruit-seller shouldn’t refuse to stock your oranges on the basis that you’re a woman or gay or black, but they’re also not compelled to alter their business model and start selling your mushrooms.

Freedom of speech and censorship are terms that are often abused online, and they have been here, but I actually think censorship is an acceptable term to use in this instance, albeit only in a small, everyday sense: one that doesn’t involve government intervention. Censorship is morally neutral as a term, as is prejudice. So in the same way that we can talk of self-censoring our outbursts, and might be personally prejudiced towards a particular flavour of ice-cream, I think we can use those terms here, so long as we’re careful not to purloin the moral weight and import of wider definitions. Ebook platforms are prejudiced against certain subject matter and are censoring it from their catalogues. That’s totally okay.

It’s much the same with freedom of speech. As the fundamental underpinning of an equal and democratic society, the term has no real place here. That said, if (theoretically) the places where 99.99% of ebooks are sold refused to stock you, and the places where 99.99% of online transactions are carried out refused to handle your money, I could see the point in tentatively employing the phrase. It would, again, be in a lesser sense, but if there is both demand and supply for a legal product, and yet the two can’t meet, we might reasonably begin thinking in those terms. At the same time, transaction could still be completed by cash in some back room somewhere, and while that might not be ideal for sellers and buyers, it’s still preferable to forcing products on retailers that don’t want them. Tough shit, in other words. I’m far from being without sympathy, but life goes on.

As to illegality, I imagine it’s safe to say that some of the material being removed would be classed as such. As this (excellent) blog points out, fictional material can still be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act. And in light of the BBFC’s refusal to grant classifications to entirely fictional films such as Murder Set Pieces and Grotesque, it would be a brave individual that risked either supplying or procuring those titles in the UK. But that, of course, is not the same as saying that should be the case, and here we do finally encounter the debates around freedom of speech in its purest form.

In my opinion, the default position is that all speech should be considered acceptable, and that it requires evidence of damage to disallow it: damage in the production or damage in the consequence. The former is easiest to deal with. In the case of genuine child pornography, say, a real child has been hurt, and the observer is both retrospectively complicit in that and also instrumental in creating demand for more children to be hurt. There is real damage there. If the piece in question is a work of fiction, then things appear less clear-cut. No real person is damaged, and no real person will be. In the case of film, it’s acted; in the case of written fiction, it’s entirely invented.

In terms of damage in the consequence, we’d be looking at someone being incited by reading or viewing this material to commit harm, but the evidence for this occurring in reality is sketchy and inconclusive. There are obvious problems collecting and interpreting the data on this. For example, if every convicted child killer in the world was proved to have watched relevant violent pornography, it would still only really tell us about child killers, not violent pornography itself. For the latter, you would need more. If lots of harmless people read or watch rape porn, then the connection becomes less and less meaningful. In other words: without evidence, don’t mix up cause and effect. Of course violent rapists will likely have viewed that kind of pornography at some point; that is, by definition, the kind of thing they are likely to seek out. But logically, that doesn’t mean it creates, causes or even influences violent rapists and what they do in real life.

Bottom line: this stuff is grim. I don’t want to read it, and however harmless you might be, a prejudiced part of me doesn’t particularly want you anywhere near me or my child if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy wanking off to. But when it comes to freedom of speech, we pride ourselves on it as a society, and we’re always aware that in theory there may be something awful waiting in the wings we have to approve without necessarily approving of. But we’re rarely ever called upon to do so. This seems like one of those times. So: I really, really don’t like what some of you are writing and reading. And yet I defend your right to do so.

different degrees of desperation

Posted by on August 31st, 2013

Richard and Judy have launched a competition to find a new bestseller.

Richard Madeley says:

“It’s become a big thing culturally – people want to write. So we just thought we’d channel it. And I know we’re going to get a bestseller. People who have been desperate to be heard, to be read, will submit their writing.”

But from here, term 1.4 of the competition rules reads:

“(you) have not previously submitted your partial novel (the “Extract”) or any work to a publishing company or literary agency and have not been previously published in any format, or released into the public domain, including but not limited to the Internet”

I’m sure there are various sensible logistical reasons for these limitations, but the two statements don’t sit well together. If you’re “desperate to be heard, to be read” then chances are you’ll have posted a short story online, or unsuccessfully submitted something to an agent or publisher at some point, and are consequently ineligible. The only possible alternatives are that: a) you’ve never written anything before; or b) that you’ve decided to leave your prior body of work utterly unobserved by others on your own hard drive until now, like a modern day Henry Darger.

Over the years, Richard and Judy have done an enormous amount to help writers (and vice versa). On the face of it, this could be an admirable undertaking. But if you’re aiming to support writers who are “desperate to be heard, to be read”, then don’t forget that many great writers will have been published in various capacities, only to be lost along the side of the road for reasons outside of their control. Others might have  been rejected by an agent just once so far. I appreciate it might be difficult – logistically – to handle entries, but if you’re going to do this shit, then do it right, or don’t bother to do it at all.

some thoughts on internet porn filters

Posted by on July 26th, 2013

So, David Cameron is keen to crack down on access to online pornography. Some people are thrilled about this. Others, not so much. Here is some detail from the previous link:

“Every household in Britain connected to the Internet will be obliged to declare whether they want to maintain access to online pornography, David Cameron will announce on Monday.

In the most dramatic step by the government to crack down on the “corroding” influence of pornography on childhood, the prime minister will say that all internet users will be contacted by their service providers and given an “unavoidable choice” on whether to use filters.”

And:

“He will say:

* The possession of “extreme pornography”, which includes scenes of simulated rape is to be outlawed.
* The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is to draw up a blacklist of “abhorrent” internet search terms to identify and prevent paedophiles searching for illegal material.
* All police forces will work with a single secure database of illegal images of children to help “close the net on paedophiles”.”

I’m sure the net on paedophiles is one we’d all like to close, and even though I suspect only the thickest of them use Twitter or insecure websites readily accessible via Google to circulate such material, it’s difficult to object. Simulated rape seems slightly trickier to me. While I wouldn’t like to meet an individual who finds such material sexually arousing, the emphasis should surely rest on simulated. If no laws are broken in the production of certain material, I’m unsure why laws should have been broken by viewing it. In addition, it feels like a very blurry definition. I don’t want to imagine somebody jerking off to rape porn, but I also think Irreversible is a masterpiece – albeit distressing and deeply upsetting. It contains an unbearable 9 minute rape scene. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could jerk off to that. Should that be outlawed?

On the subject of filters, I also have a heavy heart. I’ve had mobile phone contracts with cack-handed versions of this applied (and really, could any filter of the web not be cack-handed, by definition?) and it was intensely annoying. I presume it limited me from accessing porn while I was out and about. It also limited me from accessing several websites that have nothing to do with porn, but which had, for some vague reason, been classified as objectionable. I’d turn down universal filters on those grounds alone. I don’t want to be prevented from visiting a site because it has adult content, because, you know, I am an adult.

Deborah Orr has an interesting article in the Guardian today, basically saying that the filters are no big deal, at least theoretically, and there’s a lot in the article that’s worth chewing over. Certainly, it’s not a hugely prominent free speech issue, simply because you can opt in. Rape pornography aside (and, depending on how it’s implemented, I’m not sure that’s a hill many are willing to die on), nothing is being banned outright. But I still have reservations. From Orr’s article:

“In other words, the current situation is awkward for some people who don’t want a portal to porn in the sitting room, while the proposed one would be awkward for some of those who do.

Why should the convenience of the second group be so much more important than the convenience of the first? The implication is that it’s normal to want access to porn, and abnormal not to want access to porn. Yet it’s clear from much of the criticism that using porn is the sort of normality that people have some reservations about sharing with others, even the people most close to them. Why would someone hide a healthy fondness for porn from their sexual partner? The tenor of this whole debate suggests that somehow it’s unfair to put people in a situation where they’re obliged to be an active participant in their quest for porn, when the responsibility for policing porn in the home is currently resting comfortably in the hands of those who would prefer never to think about it at all.”

This argument seems to pivot on the idea that it’s okay to restrict things if there’s no obvious reason to allow them. That is not how I would personally approach things. Explicit hardcore porn is not beamed directly into your home. If somebody chooses to search for it, then I see no prima facie reason – legality of material aside – why they should not be able to find it. Any argument in support of filters should be addressing why that should not be the case. Saying “I don’t want it” is not enough, because you can – you know – opt out.

In short: to ban or limit access to something, you require a reason for doing so; the default state should be unfettered access, and we work from there. Being able to look at something is not the same thing as being able to look at something if you say please, and we lose that distinction to our disadvantage – somewhere down the line, if not now. This is not trivial; it’s important.

The question then becomes: is it worth doing? Is it justifiable? On the face of it, restricting access to online pornography to save the children seems fairly admirable – simply on the basis that, upon being asked “do you want kids to be able to look at porn?” most people would say “No.” And yet both terms cover a lot of ground. While the internet has allowed easy access to the whole spectrum of pornography, it’s hardly a monolith. Yes, you can watch obnoxiously orchestrated and deeply unpleasant hardcore videos – but you can also watch amateur clips of fairly normal people having loving and fairly naturalistic sex. It doesn’t make sense to me to use the same term for both. As a teenager, I saw a fair bit of porn – most of it on grainy VHS, or in magazines found, bizarrely, abandoned and stuffed into tree trunks in woods – and yet somehow I managed to enter my late teens and early twenties without absurd expectations of what women were like, or how to treat them.

This is not to say that attitudes can’t be problematic. But I do think Orr brushes too briefly over things like Page 3, or – say – the Mail’s infamous sidebar of shame, which will not be prohibited by the filters. These things are more subtle and more pernicious, and I’d imagine that the existence of these, along with countless other examples, is more damaging overall to the collective consciousness than the ability to watch a couple (or whatever) of people shagging, however enthusiastically or unrealistically.

Of course, Cameron is never going to restrict access to those things, and never could. I’d suggest these current plans are similarly unworkable and ridiculous, if on a slightly different scale, and I’d be amazed if they are actually implemented. They strike me as gesture politics at best: a simple thing to say to appease people, but which can easily be forgotten and abandoned down the line. Or, to put it another way, a bit of momentary crowd-pleasing headline-grabbing to distract everyone from the people who are really getting fucked.

1. http://jerermyduns-watch.blogspot.co.uk/

The original, and still the most revealing. Its profile claims the author is Maria James, and yet the initial post begins thus:

“Dear Jeremy,

My name is Emily James, and I am a human rights lawyer who campaigns against the surveillance society.”

Its initial focus is on Jeremy’s taping of a conversation with the author Steve Roach (made without informing him) about Roach’s experiences of being bullied by bestselling author Stephen Leather. You can read a storify about that here.

[It’s worth noting that Roach did feel maligned by the attention, not least because, at this point, he felt he had buried the hatchet with Leather. Leather’s own attitude to that rapprochement was to publish a private email from Steve Roach on his Facebook page, and make fun of him.]

Regardless, this is a blog that was clearly created in haste – hence the spelling error in the title – and one which was then swiftly, even cruelly, abandoned, like a wretch.

2. http://jeremyduns-watch.blogspot.co.uk/

Also alleged to be by Maria James. Maria James 2. Ma2ia James.

[Actually, as a brief aside, no record appears to exist to support Maria’s existence as a human rights lawyer – or, indeed, as a human being. She does have a twitter account – here – which alternates between tweeting links to blogs about Jeremy Duns, and retweets of messages with feminist content. The feminist retweets may well be automated, based on keywords, as Maria has had at least one terrible misfire, involving posting an image of a blowjob. Another author who uses automated tweets is Stephen Leather.]

The content here reiterates some of the concerns of the previous blog, before evolving into accusations of misogyny, the main evidence for which appears to be that Jeremy admires the novel Casino Royale. It also has a pop at me, and others. Logic is tortured; facts, brushed aside. This is not a blog prepared or fit for discourse; it will not survive well. And indeed, it appears to have fallen into a state of decomposition, with its penultimate flail at life an almost incomprehensible attack on David Hewson for writing adaptations of the (very famous) TV series The Killing:

“Note the use of the description of a ‘gaping wound’ that is ‘like a second sick smile’. I can assume that Hewson is trying to compare it to a vagina. Sick. Just a one off? Before that Hewson published ‘The Killing I’”.

Another writer that has criticised David Hewson is Stephen Leather.

David 1

3. http://jeremydunsjournalist.blogspot.co.uk/

It is an anonymous blog, and the content is mainly concerned with whether Jeremy is a journalist or not. (Spoiler: he is a journalist).

There is some junk DNA in this thing about Jeremy editing his own wikipedia page. Which, as I check it, yes, he appears to have done – openly, under his own name, with limited success, and with the aim of correcting the malicious attentions of numerous anonymous editors. For a while, the entry was mostly focused on his altercations with other authors and journalists: R J Ellory; Q R Markham; Lenore Hart; Nate Thayer. The present version – hard-fought-for; wrangled over – now also includes mention of an author named Stephen Leather.

4. http://jeremydunsjournalist.wordpress.com/

More of the same, more-or-less. We look at these things and yawn, after a while, don’t we? The same dead eyes; a similar path worn in the dirt as the useless fucking thing circles, then circles again. But we press on. This blog is distinguished for two reasons. The first is its almost incoherent howl of plagiarism, which is based on the notion that the Telegraph republishing an article previously published (by them) by Jeremy constitutes self-plagiarism. Well, it doesn’t, obviously, but this is a blog, and it cannot possibly understand. Take this thing out back and put it out of its suffering. Wait, sorry. I get ahead of myself.

The second is this post, which is interesting only in terms of the screengrabs it uses to illustrate its points. At least two of them are clearly screengrabs made by Stephen Leather (they’re amongst the motley collection visible here). Perhaps these images have been absorbed by osmosis and incorporated into the whole of this blog-thing, this thing that not even a mother would love, and which should, undeniably, die. Leather should sue. But then, most of these blogs use photos and images they have no right to use, so perhaps he should not.

5. http://jeremydunsauthor.blogspot.se/

This ostensibly puny creation is a clone of the following .co.uk site – but dislocated to a Swedish address – so we’ll just move swiftly on to that instead, and speak of it no longer.

6. http://jeremydunsauthor.blogspot.co.uk/

Most notable for its false accusations of sockpuppetry. As any fule kno, it’s not sockpuppetry to use a pseudonym or an elaborate username online – and many people log into forums with names that differ from their given ones. The important thing is what you’re using that false name for, and whether you’re pretending to lack an interest while you do so.

For example, Stephen Leather admitted creating accounts to promote his work – accounts that readers might assume were other disinterested readers like themselves. They had no idea that the individual recommending Stephen Leather’s books was Stephen Leather himself. That’s sockpuppetry. Whereas, while Jeremy initially seems to be promoting his work under an alias, it’s clear upon reading the screengrabs that he has self-identified as the author of the book he’s discussing. He’s not being a conman. He’s not misleading anyone. He’s not using a sockpuppet.

This blog is also notable on a teeny, tiny level for using the same screengrabs of Jeremy’s reviews as the final blog to be discussed, but honestly, this blog would take anything at this point, and it’s best not to indulge it.

7. http://authorjeremyduns.wordpress.com/

This stumbling, crawling one is notable for two primary reasons. There are two posts. The first attacks Jeremy’s sales figures, using a screengrab that resembles one Stephen Leather took to misrepresent my own. (Leather is obsessed with sales figures, by the way. See the comment thread here, and likely a zillion other places). You’re tempted to say “and how many books have you sold, anonymous blog?” and also “what does it matter, anyway?”, but to do so would only encourage the thing, and it’s better to leave it be.

The second – and come on, now; we’re nearly done – is the accusation that Jeremy exchanged reviews with another writer. The evidence is that they have both favourably reviewed each other’s books. There is zero evidence – as things stand, on the basis of that – that this is a “review swap”, rather than one writer honestly admiring another that works in the same genre. And the names are not hidden. And where is my shotgun, and where is the back of the motherfucking barn?

defending our good name

Posted by on February 11th, 2013

Not that this blog has much of one, of course – but still.

The Left Room was (briefly) used as a reference on Julian Ruck’s wikipedia page, which (again, briefly) mentioned his admitted plagiarism. It doesn’t presently, due to the attentions of an editor called Bagehot1, who has been carefully curating that page (and only that page). What interests me is a comment left by Bagehot1 in defence of one of the edits made:

“This ‘controvesy’ insert is both mailicious and libellous and is not credibly sourced. The blogger John Abell is presently under police investiagtion along with the left room blogger” (17.26, 10 February 2013)

The “police investiagtion” (sic) presumably refers to this, in which Julian Ruck, a man otherwise much concerned with taxpayers’ money being wasted on behalf of authors, has lodged a claim of harrassment against a clearly satirical website that jokingly threatened to have monkeys throw dog shit and his own books at his house. As absurd as that is, I don’t have any responsibility for that website, so can only assume I’m under investigation for the mentions I’ve given Mr Ruck here at The Left Room – which amount to two.

The first is of no consequence. The second is here. That’s the one where I accuse Julian Ruck not only of writing a pathetically sexist column – as such an accusation would be tautologous – but also blatantly plagiarising Christopher Hitchens. He is a plagiarist, I say. Julian Ruck is a plagiarist. “Step forward if you’re not a plagiarist – where do you think you’re going, Julian?” And so on. And shame on the Llanelli Star, which is still, as of today, hosting stolen content and continuing to publish his column. The only reasonable assumption is that Ruck has particularly embarrassing photographs of someone in charge there, assuming anyone is.

Anyway – if Dyfed-Powys police really are investigating my blog, the relevant links they’ll be interested in are above. Always happy to co-operate.

Piracy, free books, etc

Posted by on January 26th, 2013

There have been a few arguments, disagreements, debates and falling-outs on Twitter recently around the subject of illegal firesharing. The critic and writer Damien G Walter has been more-or-less at the centre, arguing for the virtues of piracy and free books, aggravating many people both with the content and the tone of his comments. Yesterday, he wrote an article for the Guardian – free to read – that explored the issue a little, although not in depth.

I figured I’d take the opportunity, skimming over some of his comments, to talk a little bit about how I feel about the subject.

All feelings, as always, are subject to change.

1. The Basics

Debates on piracy – and I’ll just use that term as a shorthand for illegal filesharing – tend to be fairly tedious, because the various arguments are familiar and the responses well-worn and rehearsed. It can be a lot like chess openings: the same moves provoke the same replies. For example, if I say “piracy is theft”, you will reply “no, it isn’t!”, and tell me why. Sicilian Dragon.

So let’s get a few basic things out of the way first. Piracy is not simple theft. It isn’t the same as walking out of a shop with a book hidden under your arm. In the latter case, you are depriving the shop of the value of that copy of the book, and – because the shop doesn’t know – possibly depriving future browsers of being able to buy the copy the shop would reorder to take its place. That doesn’t happen with piracy: the original copy remains, and it can still be bought. Theft is subtraction, whereas piracy is multiplication. Piracy, put simply, is getting something for nothing. That is the only real similarity between the two. Although it’s worth noting that the desire to “get something for nothing” is often part of the disdain people have for literal thieves.

Okay, look here:

damientech1
damientech2

Walter seems to think that the people who object to piracy lack technological knowledge, which isn’t particularly admirable of him. For what it’s worth, I completely understand that piracy can’t be stopped: that, without gross and wholly unacceptable limitations being placed on personal freedom, or some kind of catastrophic social collapse, it will only ever get easier to copy and distribute files. That’s a world away from claiming, as he has appeared to, that it’s a positive thing. We’ll come back to this.

2. Free books

For the purposes of what follows in this bit, I’m going to conflate piracy with giving books away for free. They’re not the same thing. Clearly, there’s a moral difference between choosing to give your books away yourself and someone else choosing on your behalf. But this is more about the benefits of having free books circulating, so we’ll meld the topics.

A key question put to Walter during the twitter exchanges can be stated as: “if you’re giving books away for free as a marketing strategy, where does the money come from?” It’s a reasonable question. Walter’s response –

damienhow

- appears to reference Tim O’Reilly’s famous observation that “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”. Walter also mentions Cory Doctorow -

damiendoctorow

- who has achieved hundreds of thousands of book sales, even though he gives the same work away for free. Leaving aside the tiresome fact that – once again – Walter assumes his critics are less educated than he is, how does giving stuff away for free to make money work?

Well, it’s fairly straightforward. The act of giving away hundreds of thousands of free books makes no money directly but also costs nothing in itself. The readers who receive those free copies can then be divided into three categories. The largest of these – the vast majority – contains (1) the readers who would never have bought the book anyway and do not go on to support you financially in any way. (This is why a free download absolutely does not equal a lost sale; there was never going to be a sale to these people, so absolutely nothing has been lost). The remaining two categories contain: (2) the people who were not going to buy it but then do support you financially in some way; and (3) the people who would have bought it and then don’t. If (2) is larger than (3), then giving away free books has probably made you money.

It’s essentially a gamble on human nature – but one that can easily pay off, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it does. Most readers, for example, are good people with a passion for books. They want to reward the creators. And it certainly appears to have worked for Cory Doctorow.

Will it work for you? Who knows, but here are some obvious problems I see with the free approach:

a) The world has changed since Doctorow began doing this, which was (correct me if I’m wrong) the early to mid 2000s. His arguments back then included the idea that reading on screens was an unsatisfactory experience, and that many readers who enjoyed the ebook would want a physical copy, either instead of or as well as. And back then, ebooks formed a vanishingly small proportion of the overall market. Given the explosion in ebooks since, and the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated ereading devices, I’m not convinced these points hold true to the same extent.

b) Cory Doctorow is Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a bestselling writer of fiction, he’s an articulate and sought-after expert on digital media, DRM, copyright etc. His public persona, in other words, is inextricably linked with this subject matter; his reputation has been built on it. Yes, every success story can be considered a special case, but Doctorow is perceived not simply as a writer who gives his work away for free, but as a pioneer in the whole area of digital rights. You will not be a pioneer; he got there first. You will just be someone giving your work away for free. And the more people pursue the free strategy (much as with the 99p pricing strategy) the harder it will be to stand out.

c) We’re not in the music industry, where artists can at least hope to make money from won-over fans who maybe don’t pay for the music itself but at least attend tours and buy merchandise. (Writers can perform, of course, but – again – you’re not Cory Doctorow. Pub bands on their debuts get larger crowds than many midlist authors). We’re also different in that our media is produced and consumed in different ways. There are fewer readers than listeners, it takes much longer to read a novel than to listen to an album, and the replay factor is considerably lower. Those three factors combined make giving a novel away for free significantly more of a financial risk than giving away an album.

3. What this means for you.

Doctorow is certainly more aware than Walter appears to be that his approach won’t work for everyone. Walter seems to think:

damiengoodwriters

It would take a lifetime to unpack everything wrong with such a blanket statement. He also appears to take the position that because the most pirated authors are the most successful, the former causes the latter:

damienrichest

It’s possible, in certain cases, that this is true, but I’d suggest that for the most part he’s getting the cart a huge distance before the horse there. I have more faith in another of O’Reilly’s famous observations as an explanation: that piracy is a form of progressive taxation. The most successful authors are pirated the most because they’re the most successful authors, so they pay the most “tax”. At best, it seems baseless to assume most of them became successful because of piracy. Evidence, basically, or GTFO.

4. Where you are determines what you see

There will always be a degree of subjectivity to this debate. Much has been made of Walter’s position as a largely unpublished writer. I think that’s unfair, although it’s true that the loudest exponents of piracy and free books are generally likely to be the people least at risk from it – the very successful who can weather it, like Doctorow and Neil Gaiman, and the people with nothing to lose from it. People like me, somewhere on the midlist, are more conflicted. This is human nature. But I dislike this kind of thinking:

damienstatusquo

damienselfinterest

Because, yes, obviously I’m concerned about my own position – but why imagine that everybody is purely out for themselves? The larger debate, which encompasses piracy, free books, cheap books, ebooks, and so on, is also about the kind of society you want to live in, along with the approach you want society to have to culture.

At this point in my life, for example, voting Tory would probably benefit me economically, but I would never do so, because I don’t think my actions, and the repercussions of them, should be centred solely on what’s best for me. So when it comes to ebooks and piracy, I’m not just thinking about my sales; I’m also thinking about the large number of people who have helped me get my books where they are, and the whole social and financial infrastructure that underlies that. I’m thinking, for example, about what the high street looks like. I’m thinking about sustainability. I’m thinking about where people are going to work to earn the money to buy the things people are selling at these cheap prices, and where they’re going to work to be able to afford to produce them. I’m thinking about whether what comes after is really what is better simply because it comes after. In short, it’s really not just about what leaves me with the most money. And that, incidentally, is also why I buy the media I want and like.

5. What I think

I have endless and fantastically violent contempt for the sites making money off the back of work they didn’t help create, and for the people behind them. I have nothing, really, against the ordinary people who illegally download my books – I can’t stop you, most of you wouldn’t have bought them anyway, and I just hope that, if you enjoy them, you consider buying some of them at some point, to support not just me, but also the other people, less visible, whose work made my books possible in the first place.

One last thing:

damiencorporate

I think this is a good article to end with a link to. It’s lengthy, but very good. Along with other points, it makes the case that free isn’t really free. I suppose it emphasises the points I just made, especially directly above, and that last tweet of Damien’s. Here’s a snippet:

“Let’s look at other things you (or your parents) might pay for each month and compare.

Smart phone with data plan: $40-100 a month.

High speed internet access: $30-60 dollars a month. Wait, but you use the university network? Well, buried in your student fees or tuition you are being charged a fee on the upper end of that scale.

Tuition at American University, Washington DC (excluding fees, room and board and books): $2,086 a month.

Car insurance or Metro card?  $100 a month?

Or simply look at the  value of the web appliances you use to enjoy music:

$2,139.50 = 1 smart phone + 1 full size ipod + 1 macbook.

Why do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music?

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:

Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

I am genuinely stunned by this. Since you appear to love first generation Indie Rock, and as a founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band I am now legally obligated to issue this order: kids, lawn, vacate.

You are doing it wrong.”

This is a quick(ish) and off-the-cuff(ish) response to Christopher Fowler’s piece today in the Independent, about crime fiction losing the plot. You can read his piece here, and I think you should, because any thoughtful discussion about crime fiction is, I think, good for the genre and should be welcomed. My random(ish) thoughts follow.

__________________________________

One obvious problem with any kind of analysis of crime fiction is that it’s a hugely popular subsection of fiction as a whole. It sells – or rather, certain crime fiction titles sell – very well indeed. When looking at any field from afar, there’s always going to be a tendency to notice the tallest poppies first, and it’s important to remember that doesn’t mean there isn’t interesting stuff going on in the undergrowth. To put it another way, any analysis of the deficiencies (if that is what they are) of bestselling crime fiction titles is more a comment on the tastes of the masses that an artistic evaluation of crime fiction as a genre. It should come as no real surprise that if you’re looking for something unusual and different from what is mainstream and popular, you’re more likely to find it at the edges, away from the centre.

That said, I think Fowler’s right to highlight realism – or the pursuit of it – as a problem. It’s quite correct to say that one of the strengths of crime fiction is shining a light on and exploring social issues, but that’s a world away from claiming the majority of it to be realistic. And I think there are a number of problems with doing so.

1.

In a vague and airy way, I’d say that describing any fiction as “realistic” is problematic in itself. What does realistic even mean, in the context of such a claim? Fiction involves characters, events and locations, and not all of them can be real, or else we’re talking about fact or documentary rather than fiction. Realistic, as a concept, is hard to quantify when it comes to fiction. Angels and pinheads stuff. On a basic level, if you tell me “Ian Rankin’s novels are set in Edinburgh”, I’ll reply that I think “set in Edinburgh” is doing a huge amount of work in that sentence – work that, when you really think about it, is actually very strange labour indeed. Fiction isn’t set anywhere, apart from as type on a page.

2.

In the context of crime fiction, nobody really knows what realistic is in the first place. We’re often told crime readers are smart, so you have to get the details right, but at the same time, most crime readers aren’t – for example – trained pathologists. That’s a very specific example, of course, but I think it’s a useful illustration. An average reader’s conception of what an autopsy scene in a work of fiction should look like is not dictated by real world knowledge of what they do look like, but by an ever-enlarging sample of how they have encountered them before in other works of fiction. That is not being realistic. That is an arms race built around suspension of disbelief.

To put it another way, The Wire may well be very realistic indeed, but I imagine a substantial number of people who praise it as such wouldn’t be able to point at Baltimore if they were presented with a map of Baltimore. What matters is not so much that it’s realistic, but that it’s convincing on its own terms, and that it’s very good. Fiction can be just as effective and revelatory and meaningful – and real - when it’s a stone skipping across the surface of reality as when it’s one that actively dives.

3.

Hat in the ring, I think – in my darkest and most private moments – that crime fiction as an overall genre is probably more at odds with realism than at home with it.  Crime fiction demands that certain things happen (although different subgenres obviously shift the timescale, camera angle and character focus). Crime fiction as a genre is not simply fiction about crime, but fiction that deals with a crime in certain specific ways. It is usually murder, for example, and it is usually solved. If you do otherwise with your story, you risk leaving the genre.

Fowler is right to say this flies in the face of reality in itself – never mind the often ostentatious nature of the bad guy’s schemes and eventual capture or murder. But even more so, it’s the concept of bad guy that’s problematic. Anecdotally, I’d say most of the writers of procedurals I know are politically left-leaning (thriller writers, more to the right), and I’d say the kind of realistic and intelligent analysis of crime those writers can provide is actually at odds with the more conservative demands of the genre – that there is a bad guy, and that he gets his comeuppance at the end. Of course, some commercially-successful writers manage it (Mark Billingham’s In The Dark, for example, eschews big set-pieces and obvious jeopardy for quieter and more resonant drama), but it’s a tough line to walk, at least while staying in the genre.

__________________________________

And finally, I think one of the real problems crime fiction has as a genre is that our traffic is almost universally one-way. We’re all aware by now that genre boundaries are porous and genre labels somewhat arbitrary, and we’ve all heard that old saw about the best genre books being snatched away as “literary”, but it seems to me that even if all that is true, crime fiction still gives away great authors far more often than it takes them.

By now, as a genre, crime fiction has innumerable recognisable tropes, patterns, characters, settings and so on. If we’re going to suggest that crime fiction is stagnating, I’d suggest in turn that it’s only because we recognise those features of the crime genre in certain arrangements, and not when they’re employed in more experimental ways. Certainly, it is easier for a crime novel to be accepted as an SF novel than vice versa; our passport control, I think, can seem way too strict. There is no reason why China Mieville’s The City & The City, or Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, or Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, or Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass shouldn’t be considered and discussed as works of crime fiction. They use our furniture, after all – our fixtures and fittings. They just don’t arrange them in a conventional order.

But in discussions such as this, those sorts of book, and many others, do tend to get lost in the undergrowth. When you take a step back, and see the land around, I really do think that, overall, it looks like a pretty healthy field.

Julian Ruck versus Christopher Hitchens

Posted by on November 30th, 2012

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the author Julian Ruck, who has darkened our hallways before. Ruck now has a newspaper column, for the Llanelli Star, and has even promised to write – at some point – about myself and David Hewson, presumably because we were both outspoken about the failure of his ebook festival, long after he’d privately exasperated at least me with his offensive and unprofessional antics.

Anyway, he has his column. His latest is called “Why aren’t women funny?” – and you can read it online here. From the title, you can imagine that it’s awful, and it is. But you can then read the article “Why women aren’t funny”, by Christopher Hitchens, here. It is also awful, although at least it has, in common with most of his stuff, a little flair. Hitchens’s article was written over five years ago, and is reasonably well-known. Let us compare it with Julian Ruck’s article, published two days ago.

1.

Julian Ruck:

“ARE women funny?

One often hears women saying: “Oh, he’s a good laugh” or “He’s so funny”, but does one ever hear men saying the same thing about women?”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny … However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make ‘em laugh.””

2.

Julian Ruck:

“So why then do women, who have all us men at their mercy, struggle to be funny?”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny?”

3. 

Julian Ruck:

“It’s probably just as well I suspect, because let’s face it, these days all we men have left, is our sense of humour. At least, when it comes to impressing the ladies.

Make no mistake, women have out-careered us, out-moneyed us and outsmarted us.

The thing is that women, have no corresponding need to “pull” men in this way.

They hold all the cards, whether men like it or not. A shapely bosom, a fine pair of legs and even a pretty smile (in that order) and we men are off with the fairies!”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.”

4.

Julian Ruck:

“Scientific research would have you believe that women have less expectation of a reward, which in this case is the punchline, so when they finally get the joke they are apparently more pleased about it. Yes I know, don’t we just love our modern “Cosmo” little insights!”

Christopher Hitchens:

 “”Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon,” said the report’s author, Dr. Allan Reiss. “So when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.” The report also found that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.””

5.

Julian Ruck:

“An average man then, has only one weapon left in his masculine arsenal — he sure as hell had better be able to make the lady laugh! If you can make ‘em laugh, and I’m talking here about the peals of delight, head-back, every tooth on show, and deep-throated mirth variety, then nine cases out of 10, you’re onto a winner.”

Christopher Hitchens:

 “An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.”

6.

Julian Ruck:

“I’m not saying there are no decent female comedians about the place, but there are without doubt, more awful female comedians than there are male, and like it or not the good ones are usually either boiler- suited or Jewish — or a combination of the two.”

Christopher Hitchens:

“This is not to say that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians … In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.”

7.

Julian Ruck:

“Finally then, quick witted and incisive humour is I am told, a sign of intelligence, and many women (at least those of more mature years) still believe that appearing to be too bright can be rather off-putting to those men showing an interest as it were.

Either this, or men just simply don’t want women to be funny.”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny.”

_____________________

Ruck ends his piece with a plaintive “You decide.” All right – I will. I decide that, aside from being sexist and unpleasant, Julian Ruck is a plagiarist. I look forward to reading whatever he eventually writes about me – assuming, that is, I haven’t read it somewhere else before.

 

Amazon reviews

Posted by on November 2nd, 2012

It appears that Amazon has instigated a new policy on reviews: one that has seen many existing book reviews being deleted, and others being refused. This has, understandably, caused much consternation and discussion online. Here is an initial post on the subject. Here is a more recent one, which goes some way to explaining what Amazon’s new policy is:

“We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.”

Taken at face value, it appears – put bluntly – that Amazon no longer accepts book reviews from people within the publishing industry. This is presently limited to accounts where the connection is made explicit (eg accounts that are linked to a specific author page), but presumably the spirit of it, at least, extends, and things may change. There are many things to say about this, but here are some initial thoughts.

1. Free speech.

This is not an issue of free speech, a term which is much abused and debased. Amazon is a private company that owns its own web space; it has no more obligation to allow you to speak on its site than I do to allow you to stick a sign up in my garden. It could conceivably become a free speech issue if Amazon controlled so much of the available reviewing space that it became impossible to review outside of them in a meaningful way. But that is not the case, and, if it were, there would be other discussions to be had. Presently, the idea this is a free speech issue is risible.

2. It’s unfair.

Yes, I would say it is. It seems to be completely over-the-top. Perhaps that’s simply because Amazon sells such a huge volume of material that any new algorithm intended to sieve it all will inevitably be blunt and cumbersome in its first few iterations.

As things stand, it flies in the face of conventional criticism, in which writers reviewing writers has a fine and long-standing tradition, and it makes the mistake of assuming that writers are in direct, one-to-one competition with each other. (We aren’t, although all of us are competing for time). Even worse is the troubling coda: “Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website”. This is not only absurdly heavy-handed and misdirected, but clearly open to mischief. Finally, these measures are unlikely to stop abuse of the review system; they barely even make it difficult.

In short, if things are as reported, Amazon’s changes are a massive failure.

That said, kudos is still due to them for doing something. Because they didn’t need to, and I didn’t expect them to. Amazon barely break even (if that) on sales of physical Kindles and they lose money on heavily-discounted traditional ebooks. In the case of self-published ebooks, they take a tremendous cut for doing practically nothing (just hosting, basically). It shouldn’t matter to them which of those books sell as long as enough books sell; they get their cut regardless of the quality of the content or why a particular book makes the bestseller lists. So there’s no impetus on them to act even vaguely as gatekeepers, and I’m quietly impressed that they want to, however minimally and ineffectively.

It’s actually one of the reasons why the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter was directed towards readers. I personally had little faith that any forward movement on this issue would come from above – either retailers like Amazon, or publishers – as there was no reason for it to. Plus, I tend to favour grassroots-driven change over top-down movements. So I was pleasantly surprised at Amazon’s actions, at least, if not pleased by they way they acted.

3. It’s the fault of you bastards.

Some people have centred on this – that Amazon’s reaction is heavy-handed and self-defeating, and that this is the fault of both the people behind and signatories to the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter. There was certainly a lot of press coverage around the letter, along with the issues it raised, and it seems fairly likely that all of that was a motivation for Amazon doing what they’ve done. Since some people feel we shouldn’t have written the letter, it’s natural to blame us when Amazon do something else those people feel they shouldn’t do as an apparent consequence. Joe Konrath, as is to be expected, is annoyed. His latest blogpost, and his comments under, contain the following direct opposites of insight:

“Congratulations, NSPHP signatories. Because of your concerns about Amazon’s review policy and your ridiculous little petition, and the resulting media witch hunt, thousands of legitimate reviews have now been deleted. Good thing you brought it to Amazon’s attention. You should be very proud.

I was going to use a “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” analogy here, but that isn’t appropriate, since that petition had over 400 author signatures. I think it’s more like tattling on a fellow student for making fart noises in class, and then the teacher making the whole class skip recess as punishment.

But let us all applaud Democracy In Action. You complained. Amazon listened to you. And now you’ve lost thousands of honest reviews.

If it makes you feel better, I’m sure a few sock puppet reviews were also deleted along with all the legit ones. So once again, congrats. You have killed an annoying mosquito using a nuclear weapon, collateral damage be damned.”

And:

“Amazon reacted to a bunch of holier-than-thou authors. I don’t like how Amazon reacted, but causality is key here.

Without the NSPHP hullabaloo we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But I’m very curious if anyone who signed that petition is applauding Amazon’s actions here.”

And:

“I’m not absolving Amazon. They screwed up. But they were responding to moral panic started by a few misguided morons who didn’t think things through but loved to point fingers and get their names in newspapers.

If I invented a time machine and eliminated three or four pinheads, we wouldn’t be having this problem. Which I still might so, as no on will mourn their erasure from human history.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.

Also in those comments (and below John Rickards’s excellent piece) Barry Eisler invokes the Law of Unintended Consequences – presumably because, having waded through the free speech debacle, many of Joe’s audience will just be grateful for the merest flickering thought that someone around there has a clue what they’re fucking talking about. Similarly, Blake Crouch on Twitter comments to one of the people who signed the letter: “I’m pissed b/c your self-righteous bluster has cost me and many others good honest reviews. Thx for that.”

Chains of causation are complex things, and one of the interesting things about them is that, when we don’t think, our personal biases tend to dictate where we stop and point and say “it’s because of this”. If I wanted to, I could take this all the way back to Stephen Leather. After all, it was his admission on stage at Harrogate that he used sock puppet accounts that led to Jeremy Duns chasing and exposing him for what he was. That, in turn, led to the environment in which R J Ellory was exposed. John Locke’s revelation fed into that from an angle, but would probably have amounted to less in isolation.

Then, there were all the people who stepped up in support of these authors’ behaviours – I lost track of the number of “all authors do it” comments I saw online – and who also helped cause the letter. And then the letter itself, with the publicity around it (very little of it sought out, by the way; the story was already running). The bloggers who then picked it up and discussed it, including Barry and Joe, the latter of which boasts of his audience and influence. And so on.

Then finally, Amazon, taking the action they have.

(And us, obviously, now talking about it again. So it will go).

You can assign “fault” at any step along the way, and clearly, personal bias will come into it as no step is inescapably inciteful of the next. I don’t really see the No Sock Puppets Here letter in itself as being devalued because it may have helped to contribute to a dubious outcome. I see it more as pointing out “there is a wasp on your collar!” If the person then smashes themselves repeatedly in the neck with a hammer, that’s clearly quite bad, but the overly exaggerated response doesn’t mean there wasn’t a wasp there, and that it wasn’t worth pointing it out in the first place. So – if we need to apportion blame – I’d say it’s obviously Amazon’s fault.

Of course, I am biased. And people who are biased in other ways may well disagree, and find other ways to frame it.