Archive for January, 2013

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:

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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 –

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– 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 –

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– 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.”

Best British Crime volume 10

Posted by on January 22nd, 2013

Really pleased to say that my story “God moving over the face of the waters” has been included in the latest volume of Maxim Jakubowski’s Mammoth Book of Best British Crime:

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I’m especially pleased because: a) I don’t write many short stories; b) it came from Off the Record 1, and any success for the story necessarily reflects on Luca Veste as the editor of that fine charity anthology; and c) just look at this contents page:

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THE BONE-HEADED LEAGUE  – Lee Child

THIS THING OF DARKNESS   – Peter Tremayne

BIG GUY  – Paul Johnston

THE CONSPIRATOR   – Christopher Fowler

SQUEAKY   – Martin Edwards

FISTS OF DESTINY  – Col Bury

NAIN ROUGE  – Barbara Nadel

THE KING OF OUDH’S CURRY  – Amy Myers

LONDON CALLING  – Ian Ayris & Nick Quantrill

THE CURIOUS AFFAIR OF THE DEODAND – Lisa Tuttle

GOD MOVING OVER THE FACE OF THE WATERS – Steve Mosby

STARDUST – Phil Lovesey

HE DID NOT ALWAYS SEE HER – Claire Seeber

METHOD MURDER   – Simon Brett

THE MAN WHO TOOK OFF HIS HAT TO THE DRIVER OF THE TRAIN  – Peter Turnbull

TOGETHER IN ELECTRIC DREAMS  – Carol Anne Davis

LAST TRAIN FROM DESPRIT  – Richard Godwin

THE MESSAGE   – Margaret Murphy

TEA FOR TWO  – Sally Spedding

SAFE AND SOUND  – Edward Marston

CONFESSION  – Paula Williams

TEN BELLS AT ROBBIE’S  – Tony Black

WILKOLAK  – Nina Allan

WHO KILLED SKIPPY?  – Paul D. Brazill

INHERITANCE  – Jane Casey

A MEMORABLE DAY  – L.C. Tyler

LAPTOP  – Cath Staincliffe

BLOOD ON THE GHAT  – Barry Maitland

VANISHING ACT  – Christine Poulson

THE BETRAYED   – Roger Busby

TURNING THE TABLES  – Judith Cutler

HANDY MAN  – John Harvey

THE INVISIBLE GUNMAN  – Keith McCarthy

THE GOLDEN HOUR  – Bernie  Crosthwaite

THE HABIT OF SILENCE  – Ann Cleeves

THE UNKNOWN CRIME  – Sarah Rayne

THE LADDER  – Adrian McKinty

THE HOSTESS  – Joel Lane

COME AWAY WITH ME  – Stella Duffy

BEDLAM  – Ken Bruen

4 A.M., WHEN THE WALLS ARE THINNER  – Alison  Littlewood

THE CASE OF DEATH AND HONEY   – Neil Gaiman

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Fine company to see my name included with. I’m really pleased.

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.

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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.

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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.

Reading in 2013

Posted by on January 7th, 2013

As I said a couple of posts below this one, I want to try to read more this year than I managed in 2012. I have no idea whether that will happen or not, but here’s a list of the novels being published this year that I’m already looking forward to. These are the ones I’m pretty much certain to be buying and reading:

January

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis
Adam Robots: Short Stories, by Adam Roberts
First Novel, by Nicholas Royle

February

Harvest, by Jim Crace

March

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Poppet, by Mo Hayder
We Are Here, by Michael Marshall

April

NOS4R2, by Joe Hill
Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough

May

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks

June

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest

August

Sandrine’s Case, by Thomas H Cook

September

The Cry, by Helen Fitzgerald
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

Which is only what leaps out at me from what I know about – but it isn’t a bad list to be getting on with. I’m planning to keep track of what I do read here at pinterest, just as I did last year, basically because it’s a lot prettier to look at than Goodreads. I’ve already read A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness; I read it as an ebook, but it was so brilliant I immediately went out and bought a signed hardback (it was just what the shop had), because I wanted a physical copy to keep. And I’ve already started Gun Machine, which is fantastic so far. So the year is starting well.

[Edit to add: and if there are any upcoming books you think I’ll enjoy, based on the above, feel free to let me know in the comments.]

Dark Room – best of 2012 nods

Posted by on January 5th, 2013

Just quickly: really pleased to note that Dark Room got a couple of mentions in ‘best of 2012’ lists. First off, here, at January Magazine – and thank you very much indeed to Ali Karim for including it. And also here – as part of the House of Crime and Mystery’s Readers Choice awards, where it’s amongst stellar company indeed (in fact, all the lists look great). Thanks to everyone who voted there – I massively appreciate it.

Looking back on 2012

Posted by on January 2nd, 2013

A couple of days into 2013, it seems like a good point to look back on 2012. For me, it was a mixed bag.

The Good

On a personal level, it was good to move house – finally. People who follow me on twitter may be familiar with the terrors of the old place; at times, I was only half-joking when I suggested it must have been built on the long-buried remains of some cursed graveyard. And although procuring a mortgage on the back of the stop-start structure of a writer’s salary was challenging, it’s great to be in our new home. Speaking of which, it’s also been a joy to see Zack growing up this year; every day, he has become more engaged and delightful. (Well, most days. He is two, after all, with everything that entails).

There have also been a number of professional highpoints. Dark Room got finished and published, and while it might not have set the world on fire sales-wise, the feedback was good, and perhaps more importantly for me, it was a book I ended up liking. In addition, it looks like it will be my first book to be published in the US.

It was fun – as always – to attend CrimeFest in Bristol and the Theakstons Crime Festival in Harrogate. At the latter, Black Flowers had been shortlisted for the Novel of the Year. It didn’t win, but honestly, it was a huge thrill just to see it hanging around in that kind of company. I did win the CWA Dagger in the Library, though, which was exactly as amazing a feeling as you would imagine.

There was also the usual pleasure of catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. It gets said a great deal, but it bears repeating: the crime fiction community is, for the most part, one of the most friendly, generous and welcoming you’ll ever encounter, and that continued to be the case in 2012.

The Bad

Aside from finishing Dark Room, and a couple of short stories, writing in 2012 was largely a frustrating and fruitless experience for me. I finished the book due for publication in June this year, but it ended up not hanging together well enough. That can be fixed, of course – and it’s only a first draft – but working out how to do so right now is problematic. It’s a tough thing to explain without going into plot details, but let’s say the book is 80% there. Unfortunately, tinkering with the 20% that doesn’t work damages the parts that do. It’s difficult to imagine it ever working in its current form. So that sucks.

Why am I not pissed off about this? Well, trust me, I am. But it’s also important to learn from things and, however grudgingly, acknowledge any positives. In this case, there is nothing wrong with the writing as such – it’s not like I lost the ability to come up with sentences I liked. I also know exactly where and why I went wrong, and won’t make the same mistake again. And even if the book never comes together as it is, I’m sure it will act as a very efficient organ donor for others down the line.

In the meantime, I’ll be starting something new. It’s annoying (for everyone) to miss a year, but these things happen. It’s writing, not just typing. Onwards and upwards.

The Ugly

Yeah. I’m sure this part doesn’t need spelling out.

Resolutions?

Only one main one, and I’m going to steal it from something Sarah Pinborough said on twitter. In 2013, I’ll be doing my best to enjoy writing, and to remember that, all things being equal, I have the best job in the world. I’m also intending to dust this place off a little and post more frequently.

All that aside, I hope you all had a great 2012, and that 2013 brings you everything you deserve.