Archive for July, 2012

Leathered

Posted by on July 29th, 2012

I don’t want to spend too much longer discussing Stephen Leather. This is likely to be my last post on the subject for a while, depending on what other worms crawl out of his woodwork, but it’s fair to say the conversation initiated by his appearance on the ebook panel at Harrogate remains ongoing, and I wanted to do a quick follow up to the post below. With a nod to the comment Sandra Ruttan made on that, this one is going to be dialled slightly further in the direction of irate.

First off, there has been a lot of coverage. To my mind, the three most thoughtful and reasonable pieces have come from Max Dunbar, James Oswald and Stuart Neville. Stuart’s is particularly good, as it concentrates on his own experience of being pestered by sockpuppets. I was also rather intrigued by this article, principally because Leather responds in the comments below, saying:

“You weren’t even there. Steve Mosby also misunderstood my comments on forum postings, Sock puppets was his phrase, not mine.”

I want to clarify this, as Leather is technically correct. He described the behaviour he indulges in while doing promotion, and I said “You mean, you use sockpuppets?”, and he basically had to agree. But yes, the phrase itself was mine. It seems tiresome to point out that he and I were not the only people in the room, and that a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” defence can only take you so far, but we are where we are. (I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask him on stage if he used these sockpuppet accounts to review his own work, but unfortunately I had to wait until a quiet moment during the signing. You will see he indicates in the comment thread on the post below that he does not).

If the sockpuppetry was not much remarked upon during the panel, it has become a focus since. The author and journalist Jeremy Duns is – I think it’s fair to say – not a man to let things lie, and he did some digging around Leather. Unconnected to the sockpuppetry, there is this comment. It’s not strictly relevant, but let’s just say that it’s not only consistently twattish but, especially taking the context into account, breathtakingly cruel and unpleasant. Jeremy also called out https://twitter.com/firstparagraph as being a fairly blatant Leather sockpuppet. But it became even more interesting when he discovered the twitter account of a writer called Steve Roach.

(I’m going to preface this by saying I feel a bit sorry for Steve Roach, and I understand why he is unhappy. His books look interesting, and he deserves better than the treatment he’s received. If the facts are as they seem, he is a victim here, and I have no wish to make him feel more of one. At first, for various reasons, Jeremy thought Steve Roach might be a sockpuppet of Leather’s. It would certainly have been an elaborate disguise, but the apparent reality seemed just as bizarre. And yet it appears that reality is true).

Here is a storify I put together of Jeremy’s tweets from last night, which summarises the situation. Basically, it appears that Roach locked horns with Leather over his promotional tactics, and Leather responded in various ways, including setting up fake Twitter accounts, which he then used to taunt Roach with and promote his own work. When Roach – overwhelmed by this – conceded defeat, Leather ‘graciously’ allowed him to take over one of the accounts in his name. You need to read the link to appreciate this properly. Roach confirmed it in a phone conversation with Jeremy, and also alludes to it fairly explicitly in this thread.

Okay. There are some people who will be saying “big deal”. I understand that viewpoint, as it’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. But I’m not interested in whataboutery at the moment, so those people should feel free to leave now.

Buckle yourselves in.

Stephen Leather is one of the bestselling writers in the world. Steve Roach is not. Assuming the facts above are true (and there is sufficient evidence that they are), then given the power difference and behaviour, let’s call Mr Leather what he is: a fucking bully.

Why does it matter? Beyond the obvious, three reasons:

1. Jeremy tweeted this last night: “We writers are colleagues. Play fair with each other, play fair with readers, don’t be cruel and vicious and so on. Obvious, surely?” Yes – surely. I’d actually extend it beyond writers to people in general, but the point stands. I don’t see myself in competition with other authors. I love the atmosphere at a place like Harrogate, where writers are friendly and supportive. In the unlikely event I’m going to attack the work of someone else, or the person in question, I like to think I’d have the modicum of integrity necessary to do so openly under my own name. And I would never promote myself under an alias because, aside from anything else, it would be illegal to do so.

2. Leather is in a position where he can influence people. He is one example, but there are other authors who engage not only in this behaviour but provably in others too: knocking down their supposed ‘rivals’ with one-star reviews, and the like. This is not how professional writers behave, for the simple reason that it’s not how decent people behave. This is not how you treat people. And yet if high-profile writers are not called out on it, there’s a danger the behaviour will be increasingly emulated and normalised. Let’s not send out the message that it’s okay to be a cunt so long as you sell.

3. The irony is that this all stemmed from a panel on which I suppose Leather and I were nominally presented as being on opposing sides of the ebook argument – that he would be for, and I against. The truth is that I dislike ebooks personally, but have no problem with them as a format: whatever works for you as a reader. And beyond a few caveats, I have little against self-publishing either. I know many writers who have been unable to either get or keep a traditional publishing contract for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their writing. And so it actually dismays me to see people like Leather held up as self-publishing gurus and heroes, as though all that matters is money and sales and not how you get them. It is precisely behaviour like this that will make it harder for self-publishing to shake off whatever stigma it still has. It is good for nobody except the person doing it, and don’t let the people responsible kid you otherwise.

And finally – last but certainly not least – an enormous round of applause for Jeremy Duns.

Now, pictures of kittens…

Harrogate / tossergate

Posted by on July 23rd, 2012

I got back from the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival yesterday. It was – as always – a brilliant weekend, so huge thanks and congratulations to the team organising it all behind the scenes, and especially to Mark Billingham, this year’s programming chair.

As usual, there was a fantastic friendly atmosphere. Catching up with old friends and meeting lots of lovely new people is as much a part of the festival experience as the excellent panels. Aside from that, I was there for two specific things: the announcement of the award on the Thursday evening, and the panel “Wanted for Murder: the Ebook” on Friday afternoon. Denise Mina won the award (and although I would have loved to win, it was very well-deserved and I was genuinely pleased for her). As to the latter … well you may have already heard. If not, this gives some indication of how heated it got. Stephen Leather has also posted his own feelings, which you can read here, and to which we will return shortly.

My impressions? The crowd reaction wasn’t quite as obvious from the stage as it must have been on the floor, but it certainly became more so as time went on. I was aware we were all knocking heads a little, but to be honest it was fairly hard for me to get a word in edgeways. At the time, it was slightly frustrating that the questions kept going to Stephen, but in hindsight it’s clear enough why. Nobody else on the panel could have argued against him quite as effectively as he managed himself.

Some specific points, with reference to Stephen’s blog post.

“Mark (Billingham) came over to me in the green room before the panel and had a quiet word with me. Basically there is a danger of the panels turning into a luvvie love-fest and he wanted me to take a view and be a tad confrontational if at all possible. He wanted the panel to be the talking point of the festival.  I’m never one to duck a good argument so I said I’d go for it.”

Well, this sounds suspiciously like someone ducking a good argument. Unless Stephen is claiming he does not hold the views he expressed on stage, and was stating them purely for effect, as per request, the point is an irrelevant one. Since he restates and expands upon a number of those views in his post, we can assume he does, and so whatever Mark said is beside the point.

“What surprised me was how the audience seemed so set against cheap eBooks.  Rather than taking my view that books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive, the general feeling of the audience seemed to be that books were already – as one man said – ‘cheap as chips’ while Norwegians had to pay £40 for one of Jo Nesbo’s books. When I explained that I had sold half a million eBooks last year, most of them for less than a quid, I was surprised to hear a few boos and hisses rather than the applause that I had expected.”

He can be as surprised as he wants, but yes, that did seem to be the general reaction. There were a great many readers there, so perhaps it seems counter-intuitive – Stephen presumably expects readers to want books as cheaply as possible – but then these were readers enthusiastic enough about crime writing to come and attend a festival. While there is certainly a legitimate discussion to be had around pricing (although loss leaders, lower prices for higher volumes, etc are neither rocket science in principle nor dependable in practice), the audience that day was far more likely to be affected by the bookseller Patrick Neale’s observation that customers in his shop these days will haggle over the cost of a book before purchasing a pack of postcards at a higher price than Stephen quoting his CV at them.

You might say he’s right though. The audience did feel books were best sold at a price they found attractive, and it’s just that their tastes were different from his.

In short, that and many of the points hinged on the concept of value. Stephen tended to concentrate on the money flowing towards him – the numbers shifted; the total money his work made – but another angle to consider is the value of the reading experience itself. The notion that ‘reading a novel shouldn’t cost less than buying a cup of coffee’ might well be romantic, but it is also intuitive, and not to be dismissed lightly. Similarly, people don’t like to picture bookshops and libraries disappearing. I think that Stephen, whatever the merits of his argument, found himself at odds with the audience, and that is not their fault.

Speaking of which:

“I’m used to being surrounded by people half my age but at Harrogate I felt like the young whippersnapper. The audience was predominantly female and elderly and they are of an age that still believes that books should be paid for.”

This is slightly ironic, considering he was sitting next to me and I was often disagreeing with him, but that’s by the by. Just to note that I find this a completely baffling analysis of the Harrogate demographic, and can only presume he had a very different festival experience from me.

“Mark (Lawson) turned to the conversation around to the cost of books and how much went to the publisher, and asked Ursula to justify why the publisher’s took the lion’s share … I tried to explain that with eBooks, an author with a large fan base can use fans to edit and proof-read.  Everyone seemed to think that meant I thought writers could do away with editors, and of course that’s not the case. But not every writer needs a hard edit, some writers need little more than proof-reading and fact-checking and that can be done through fans.”

As anyone who was present will know, this is a distinctly rose-tinted version of what was said. I think Stephen found himself trapped here, actually, and let an off-the-cuff comment fly, but that is a matter between the man and his publisher. By this point, it didn’t feel like he was being deliberately confrontational so much as continually putting his foot in his mouth and coming across badly. You could say the same thing about his use of ‘HMD’ in the reply to the article linked to above, or his patronising reference to fellow panellist Ursula Mackenzie as a “silly girl”. Or from his blogpost, this, about an agent tweeting him:

“I did think of tweeting to ask her if it was eBooks or salads that she was most afraid of, but I’m too much of a gentlemen.”

Leaving aside the fact that if you’re going to insult someone unnecessarily then it pays to at least be funny, the accidental use of the plural “gentlemen” there might cause anyone who was present to raise an amused eyebrow. Because nowhere in Stephen’s blogpost does he mention the moment on the panel that really caused the audience to gasp: his casual and unashamed admission that he uses sock puppet accounts to promote his work – creating fake online personas to engage with him, each other and other readers to build buzz and spread the word about his books. When I asked him if his readers knew these accounts were fake, he said no. He seemed totally oblivious that any of this might prove controversial, but it was what most people were talking about afterwards.

All in all, the panel felt surreal. It was a strange experience, as I certainly didn’t dislike Stephen – he was very amiable, with a lot of time for his fans at the signing – and I agreed with him on certain issues, such as DRM. The comment on piracy that prompted the “Tosser!” shout was badly worded and ill-advised, especially given the atmosphere, but I do understand the point he was attempting to make. Unfortunately, it came at the end of what had basically been a car crash of an event for him.

As a final note, I’ll return briefly to the comments I made earlier about value, and the different perspectives on it. Stephen seemed to concentrate on value in purely financial terms, and with his use of words like “punters” and “units” it was occasionally easy to forget we were talking about books at all. I’m sure he doesn’t really think like this, but it came across at times as though his readership was some kind of bovine factory farm that needed to be milked in the most efficient manner possible. At a festival full of passionate readers, the response to that was always going to be chilly. It is a business, of course – but to many writers, readers and publishers, books do mean considerably more than that. Conspicuous by its absence in the discussion was any passion whatsoever for storytelling and reading, even though it was precisely that passion that had brought the audience there in the first place.

What to do, though? The issues are so nuanced that in a live debate I imagine we’re always going to end up with more heat than light. But I also imagine these debates will happen more and more. If they’re anything like last Friday’s, then at least they’ll be enormously entertaining.

Anyway. Thanks to everyone who came to that – and, once again, to everyone at the festival. Great weekend. Let’s do it again next year, eh? Yes? Cool!

dark room

Posted by on July 18th, 2012

Dark Room is officially published tomorrow, but I’ve seen copies in the wild already, so this is just a quick post to say – it’s out! To celebrate, I thought I’d mention a couple of reviews and associated interviews that are available to read online.

The first review is from L J Hurst at Shotsmag, and you can read it here. “A grim police procedural with rich sub-texts” – I like that. The review is positive, and I’m very grateful to them for running it.

Grateful, also, to Luca Veste at Guilty Conscience for this review. Which I think might be the best review I’ve ever had. I’m too bashful to quote from it, but huge thanks to Luca for his kind words.

Interviews – Ric Ward was good enough to ask me some questions for his website, and you can read the answers here. And Luca was good enough to do the same. Here’s what I had to say there.

Tomorrow is also the day I head off to Harrogate for the crime fiction calendar’s best festival. I’m doing an event on the Friday afternoon, and I’ll be there tomorrow night for the opening ceremony, at which the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award is announced. Thrilled to be on the shortlist, whatever happens. And if any of you are attending this weekend, I hope I’ll get the chance to catch up with you and say hi.

1.
Last year, Still Bleeding made the longlist for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. This year, Black Flowers goes one louder and has been selected for the shortlist. To say I’m thrilled about this is – obviously – a massive understatement.

I don’t want to reiterate a point I made a while ago about personally, as a reader, being more interested in shortlists than winners, but I will say it’s a massive honour to find myself included amongst the other authors and books on that list. I genuinely didn’t expect to be there.

More details are available here. The award is announced on Thursday 19 July on the opening night of the Festival, and is partly decided by a public vote. If you feel like voting for Black Flowers (or indeed, any of the other books on the list: all support for writers is A Good Thing), you can do so from here until Tuesday 17 July.

2.
That shortlist was announced last Thursday, the same day I travelled down to London for the CWA Dagger event. Various shortlists were announced, and various awards for previously-announced shortlists were revealed. I was up for the Dagger in the Library award and … I won. I was – again – totally surprised. It was actually a surreal moment when my name was read out.

Although I didn’t expect to win, I thought I’d better think of some kind of speech just in case I did. I probably jabbered through it on the night, but it was roughly this. (Bear in mind that a) I’m not a very funny speaker and b) it was late by then and I was painfully aware that nobody in the room wanted a long speech).

“When I was six, I was a runner-up in a competition to design a cake for a Lord Mayor’s parade. I won a Blue Peter badge. Until now, that’s the closest I’ve come to winning anything in my whole life.

And this is a really nice award to win. Partly because it comes from our increasingly – and disgustingly – besieged libraries, but also because it’s for a body of work. It’s weird to think that I have a body of work, and the truth is that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for a whole bunch of people. I’m now going to thank them.

Firstly, thanks to my agent, Carolyn Whitaker. And to Orion, my publisher. You hear all these horror stories about writers being dropped when they don’t perform well commercially, and I’m sure that does happen, but Orion have always been behind me from the beginning, incredibly supportive, and I couldn’t ask for a better publisher. Thanks also to the foreign publishers who have taken on the books.

Thanks to my friends and family, especially my wife and son, for putting up with me. And the readers and libraries who put me forward, and the judging panel for choosing me from such a strong shortlist. It’s a huge honour. You’ve made my year – thank you so much.”

I forgot to thank the fucking CWA! Imagine. Well, I was nervous – so a belated thank you now to the CWA, for organising such an amazing event, for giving me an award (it really is an actual dagger, by the way, although pointy-lethal rather than swipey), and for all the hard work they do on behalf of the genre. I really will rejoin, as soon as I pull my finger out.

3.
I mentioned in the post below that I had some events to announce. Here they all are.