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more problems with amazon reviews

Posted by on November 18th, 2014

The conventional wisdom has always been that authors should never respond to reviews. It’s good advice. I replied to one once. My first ever review was long and brutal, and included the implication that I was a misanthropic young man who had issues with women. On the grounds that the book is not the writer, I emailed the editor asking for that single line to be removed. He replied by nailing the flag of integrity to the mast of his publication and gesturing pointedly at it. They would publish a response, he told me, but warned that it seldom looked good. He was right, of course, and I left it there. These days, I wouldn’t have bothered emailing in the first place, but this was back in 2003 or so, when I was still young and naïve.

Fast forward a decade or so, and we come to the various scandals and problems with the Amazon review system, which, given the enormous number of titles available, has become increasingly important as some kind of filter, however flawed and inadequate it may be. From sockpuppetry to bulk-buying positive reviews, the star system has always been, and remains, eminently gameable. Two years ago – back when this all flared up briefly in the news – one suggestion was to do away with the star system altogether and rely purely on the written reviews, which would require more effort to fake and game. Obviously, that was never going to happen. But in truth, it wouldn’t solve much.

One of my novels has an Amazon review (average, star-wise) that details the main plot beats for about three quarters of the book, giving away at least two major twists. Someone (not me) has commented under it, complaining about spoilers, and the original reviewer has replied, saying simply “Wrong”. Well, sorry, it’s not wrong. Those are spoilers. I wrote the fucking thing, and I ought to know. They’re developments I didn’t reveal until about 75% of the way through, and I didn’t do that by accident. Knowing them going in means you’ll get an entirely different reading experience from the one I intended. And yet I’ve never complained about or reported this review. I’m no longer quite so young and naïve, and ultimately, any damage done is relatively trivial.

But this is not about me. An author friend of mine has recently received a review on Amazon that’s somewhat more problematic. Since it’s possible the book might be on your to-be-read pile, I’m not going to identify the author or title – or indeed, the reviewer. It’s a three-star review, and the full text is exactly as follows, beyond me redacting the character name:

“Fascinating at times especially the Television background part of the story .Too early I realised the villain was [xxxxx].so the conclusion left no surprises ,really.”

And nor will it now for anyone else. The reviewer has sixteen other reviews, most of them equally short and oddly punctuated, and at least one other also contains a spoiler (again, name redacted):

“Thrilling,a good mystery and a good read.Plenty of suspense until the end .however it was obvious [xxxxx] was the good guy.”

I tend to differentiate between reviews and criticism, in that reviews are intended for readers who haven’t bought a book, while criticism is a deeper discussion and analysis for people who have, and so may well include spoilers. Obviously, this distinction is a tad inadequate; there is overlap between the terms, and there’s no reason a review won’t often involve careful critical analysis, or a lengthy critical essay influence a purchase. But I think it’s clear that the Amazon review system is geared towards the former: readers giving a rating, along with their thoughts, in order to help other readers decide whether they wish to buy the book.

Now, while reading a crime novel offers a myriad of pleasures, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by saying that revealing the identity of the bad guy is going to spoil the reading experience for many, and that in fact a large number of potential readers are going to decide not to bother. The details given in these reviews won’t help readers in their purchasing decision; they will effectively make that decision for them.

My friend has asked Amazon to remove the review, and Amazon have refused. There are a number of possible reasons for them doing so. The first is that they genuinely see the review as legitimate and useful and fair game, which I suppose is possible. The second is a stance based on some kind of spurious misthinking around free speech, which, given their removal of reviews in the past, is extremely unlikely. More likely by far is that the sheer number of reviews in their databases means that authors demanding this kind of specific attention en masse is a potentially huge ballache for them, and it’s easier just to tell individual people no. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that Amazon probably don’t care that much. After all, authors and publishers have a vested interest in people buying, reading and loving specific books, whereas Amazon don’t care so long as people buy something, and it doesn’t really matter what. If one book is spoiled, a browser will just buy another, and Amazon get paid regardless.

However, it should be obvious that a review like the one above is enormously disadvantageous to readers browsing the site, arguably even more so than all the fake five- and one-star fuckery. And while there is no reason to attribute malice to this particular reviewer, if Amazon’s policy is to not remove reviews containing egregious spoilers, there’s no obvious reason a malicious reviewer couldn’t sabotage the books of a rival in such a manner. After all, such malicious authors do exist. Reader beware, in other words. It’s one more reason not just to take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt, but to ignore them altogether. Assuming everybody with any sense isn’t doing so already.

a blurry first draft

Posted by on November 14th, 2014

Two whole months since an update here! I think that might be a record even for me, but not one I intend to try breaking any time soon. The truth is that the last few months have been a whirlwind of work – or as close to work as writing can be described as – and I’ve had to concentrate on hitting the deadline for next year’s novel. I missed it by two weeks, but I guess that’s not bad going for me, especially as it’s been written in about half the time it usually takes me to pull a draft together.

And it is a draft. Some writers do claim to get it right first time; I’m not one of those writers who claim that. My books tend to build up slowly over time, with the iterations of different drafts adding layers and ironing out wrinkles. The final book comes together gradually, like a slowly developing photograph. The draft I’ve just sent off is the first I’m prepared to allow my agent and editor to look at, but to run with the photograph analogy for a moment, it remains blurry in places, some of which I know about and some of which I probably don’t. But it’s certainly reached the point where it can be read as a coherent book – you can tell what it’s meant to be, looking at it – and so now I want to get some feedback on the problems I can’t see.

What is it? My first sequel. A follow up to The 50/50 Killer. It takes places roughly a year and a half after the events of that book, and follows several of the characters from it. It has strong ties with the first novel, but can – hopefully – be read as a standalone too. The working title is currently Let No Wrong Be Done. It’s scheduled for release next June. And here’s the blurb, copied from Amazon.

Charlie Matheson died two years ago in a car accident. So how is a woman who bears a startling resemblance to her claiming to be back from the dead? Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate and hear her terrifying account of what she’s endured in the ‘afterlife’.

Detective David Groves is a man with an unshakeable belief in the law, determined to bring his son’s killers to justice. But Groves’ search will mean facing someone with an altogether more ruthless approach to right and wrong.

Former Detective John Mercer is slowly recovering from the case that nearly destroyed his life, but a connection to Charlie Matheson brings the realisation that he still has demons left to face.

And at the centre of it all, are two brothers with a macabre secret. They’ve been waiting. They’ve been planning. They’ve been killing. And for Mark Nelson, David Groves and John Mercer, they’re about to unleash hell on earth.

Which is what I submitted beforehand, and which is pretty much what it turned out to be. Another small miracle. But anyway – that blurry first (actually about fifth) draft has been sent, and now I wait to see what people think. And with my head still in intensive work mode, I get to feel at a loose end for a while.

*loads up the new Call of Duty*

About eleven and a half years ago, long before it became socially acceptable, never mind fashionable, I tried my hand at internet dating. It was a fairly successful experience, to say the least. I met a handful of people, some of whom I ended up in relationships with for a while, others that just became friends, and – eventually – my wife. And contrary to the concerns and admonishments of several friends at the time, nobody I met tried to murder me.

One of the people I met, in early 2003, was called Tori (or rather will be for the purposes of this post). I went out with Tori for about two months, after which we decided that there wasn’t enough of a spark between us, and that it would be much better to continue as just friends, which is what we did. I was glad about that, as even if we didn’t work as a couple, I knew that I still very much wanted Tori in my life. Anyone who got to know her would tell you the same: there was something about her that drew you in, that made you want her to be part of your world. She was beautiful, funny, kind, quick to laugh, incredibly well-read and – above all – fiercely intelligent. Probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.

She was also bipolar. I don’t think I ever saw her in a depressive state, but I did see her several times during a manic phase. One time, I visited her in hospital. Her boyfriend at the time was a bitter, obnoxious control freak, and he’d convinced her that taking lithium was a sign of weakness on her part. The outcome was predictable, and when she became ill, he got angry and beat her up. When I went to see her, she’d been sectioned, and it was heartbreaking to see my friend, usually so articulate and full of life, in that condition. It was still her, of course, but her mind was clearly at angles with the world, and the conversations were impossible to follow as they took seemingly random turns. The drugs she was taking had dialled her everyday vibrancy down to shades of grey. It’s such a cruel condition. I left the hospital that day feeling angry and upset and protective and powerless.

A while later, I wrote about the experience in a book called Cry For Help, calling the character roughly based on her Tori. I asked her permission first, of course, which she waved away almost without thinking; it was fine, she said, and with a typical degree of insight told me I wouldn’t be writing about her anyway, but myself. She was right about that, but I still wish I’d dedicated the book to her; I should have done.

But then, she was always remarkably forthright about her mental illness, and even while she fought constant battles with it over the years, she also fought it on a different front as well. She worked her way up through academia, culminating in a PhD on ways of destigmatising mental health issues amongst the young – a PhD that was passed on the spot without changes. She produced numerous papers on that and other issues, always readable, always thoughtful and insightful. That intelligence permeated her social life too. Whenever I had a problem, including issues with my own mental health, I knew I could talk to Tori and get exactly the right piece of advice, or even a smart analysis of the situation from a direction I hadn’t even considered. It was as though she’d spent so long understanding the elaborate clockwork of her own mind that other people’s simple mechanisms had become child’s play for her.

She moved away. We always kept in touch, although it was intermittent: sometimes we’d see each other five or six times a year, others only once. She was at my wedding. The last time I saw her was early in 2013. We met for a drink, but she was reasonably manic, and had double-booked, and we only spoke for half an hour or so. She emailed me a few months later, suggesting we meet up, but it was close to Harrogate and I couldn’t make it, and after a few back-and-forth messages the suggestion fizzled out. Again, I wish I had met her; again, I should have done. Not because it would have changed anything, but just for the sake of seeing her again – although I suppose the sadness of seeing someone for the last time will always be the what and why of it, not the when.

She was ill during the summer of 2013, but seemed to be improving. There was talk of her returning to work, but it wasn’t to be, and in September last year she took her own life. It was hard to accept at the time; it remains hard to accept now. Because of the nature of our friendship, it can sometimes feel like it’s been one of those periods where we simply didn’t catch up for a while, and there’s a moment of painful realisation when I remember that we never will. She was always so supportive and proud of my writing, even though it was – frankly – way too lowbrow for her usual tastes, and yet I realised I’d never explored much of her own. After her death, I read through the various papers and articles available online, and then downloaded her PhD thesis. In the acknowledgements, amongst many others, I saw my own name and burst into tears.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m not going to say anything as facile as that everything can be dealt with, all problems solved, but if your feelings are taking you in that direction then please remember that you’re certainly not alone, and that there is help out there. Here is a list of some charities and organisations that can offer either confidential advice or other resources:

Samaritans
08457 909090
Samaritans.org

Young Minds
Youngminds.org.uk

Sane
0845 7678000
Sane.org.uk

Mind
0300 123 3393
Mind.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness
0300 5000927
http://www.rethink.org?

The Mental Health Foundation
Mentalhealth.org.uk

 

74%

Posted by on July 31st, 2014

The latest missile in the ongoing Amazon/Hachette dispute: Amazon have posted a blog giving the clearest insight yet into the nature of the negotiations. It’s worth reading all of it, and possibly some of the reactions (which aren’t hard to find). It clarifies certain things, while leaving others out, but I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of it in this post.

“It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.”

For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. That’s a fairly unequivocal statement, isn’t it? But firstly, despite the confidence of the assertion, I wonder how accurate it can really be. After all, publishing a book is an experiment without a control; you can’t go back in time and reprice it during that busy first month to see what might have been. Overall, 9.99 books might outsell 14.99 books 1.74 copies to 1. If they were mops or toasters then it would be reasonable to extrapolate from that – because mops and toasters are fairly interchangable items and the demand for them probably doesn’t fluctuate much over time – but I’m not convinced books are the same.

It reminds me a little of the pro-self-publishing argument that, had you self-published, you would have made x% more money, which is a flawed argument as it assumes you would have had the same sales numbers. This seems a similar attempt to re-run history changing only one variable, and I can’t really imagine how it can be supported.

But then, I don’t have a background in statistics, or access to Amazon’s extensive data and algorithms. For now, let’s assume it’s simply and literally true that a book priced at 9.99 sells 1.74 the number of copies of the same book priced at 14.99. If so, then as Amazon asserts in its post, the revenue is impacted accordingly. A book that sells 100k copies at 14.99 generates 1,499,000. Sold at 9.99 instead, it would generate 1,738,260, an increase in revenue of roughly 16%. Everybody – the consumer, the retailer, the publisher – appears to win. Fat bank! Big pie! Tuck in! Etc.

So 9.99 is the winner then? Hooray! Except, wait, please, hold those horses; put down those knives and forks. Because as others have pointed out, there are only two price points being compared here. What about other prices? In comparison to 14.99, we now know that 9.99 sells 74% more copies, resulting in a 16% increase in revenue. To get that same 16% increase at 10.99, 11.99, 12.99 and 13.99 we would need, respectively, an increase in copies sold of roughly 58%, 45%, 34% and 24%. Do those increases occur at those reduced prices? Only Amazon knows, and they haven’t said. But we can’t realistically decide whether 9.99 is the optimum balance of price, volume and revenue – the sweet spot, if you like, of supply and demand – without that additional data. Taken at face value, all we know is that 9.99 is better than 14.99, not that it is best.

But let’s say it is the best. Amazon’s data is drawn from a world where some books are sold at 9.99 and some at 14.99, while others are priced lower or higher still, and conclusions from that world obviously don’t map neatly onto a world where all books are suddenly being sold at 9.99. But let’s enter that world. Let’s imagine all those repriced books really are seeing an increase of 74% in sales. And let’s try to explain how the fuck that could actually happen.

Reason Number One: More Books Sold!

It’s simply people buying more books than they used to. Instead of 50 million books being sold in a year, or whatever, it’s now 75 million, or whatever. What a joyous thought! There’d be a 74% increase in bunting sales that year too. And bridges. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it’s entirely realistic. Cheaper ebooks have no doubt contributed to some tottering digital to-be-read piles, but there’s no buffet so long that the table doesn’t end. People only have so much time. I imagine ebooks will continue to expand the market, but not quite to this extent. You may believe otherwise, which is obviously fine.

Reason Number Two: Different Books Sold!

People see bestselling traditionally published authors at 9.99 and buy those books instead of the cheaper- or same-priced book they would previously have bought by a lesser known author. In this view, the market doesn’t massively expand, more rearranges itself internally. The 74% increase in sales for those repriced 14.99 books comes at the expense of sales for midlist and self-published authors.

Reason Number Three: Less Books Sold Elsewhere!

Here, I think, we get to the crux of the matter. The 74% increase in book sales, the increased revenue, the big pie – this is solely through Amazon. (And only ebooks at that). And this seems to be the crucial point, and one possible reason why publishers (and some authors) might be responding with less enthusiasm to the apparently unshakeable (to some) logic of Amazon’s recent post. Maybe the 74% increase is at the expense of other outlets: sales sucked away from other retailers, ones that actually rely on book sales and might go under as a result, eventually leaving Amazon as a virtual monopoly for book-buyers and a monopsony for publishers.

You will have your own feelings about the latter possibility, everything it entails, and the possible effects and repercussions of ending up in such a situation. Regardless, it’s fair to say that – for me – Amazon’s latest revelations don’t really change anything. And despite the apparently impeccable logic, I understand why it doesn’t for publishers either. 

#TOPCrime2014 Feedback

Posted by on July 24th, 2014

This post is intended to be a compendium of posts reflecting on – or riffing off – this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It’s probably a long way from being exhaustive, so if I’ve missed anything obvious then let me know (either by email (my address is up above) or preferably in the comments below) and I’ll keep updating the post with new stuff as and when.

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At crimefictionlover, Craig Robertson lists 16 wonderful things about the Festival.

William Sutton has his say here (and includes possibly the most rock n roll photo of Stav Sherez I’ve ever seen).

My Yorkshire Post interview now includes a video of various authors talking about the Festival at the Festival.

Naturally, a lot of the coverage has focused on the J K Rowling event. Here is Vicky Newham’s write-up. Here is Erin Mitchell‘s report on the evening. And here is Julia Byers with an enthusiastic and totally lovely description of the event. Her excitement is contagious.

Here’s Mari Hannah’s take on the weekend, which includes the somewhat unnerving phrase “Steve Mosby cake”.

Alexandra Solokoff describes the differences between Harrogate and a US convention.

Rebecca Bradley has done a few posts about the weekend. Here and here and here.

Lots of papers covered the Thursday night award ceremony. Here’s the Guardian, in which I call Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker “a really special book”, because it totally is.

Two posts at Strange Alliances so far. There may well be more. Here and here so far.

Helen Smith’s take on the Festival.

Susi Holliday enjoyed the weekend, and had an additional reason to be excited about being there.

L M Steel has a comprehensive take on the Friday and Saturday here.

Graham Smith has a round-up of the Festival here, which includes interviews with John Harvey and me.

Lucy Cameron also had a thoroughly excellent time this year.

As did K A Laity.

And here‘s a round-up on acrimereadersblog

Tamsyn Murray reports on the weekend here.

Fenris Oswin was the official photographer at the Festival, and has made lots of wonderful photographs of various events available online here.

Pam McIlroy has an excellent summary of the weekend here, and also manages to sum up exactly how I felt the whole time!

Eileen Wharton had a fantastic weekend, and (like a great many people) especially enjoyed the brilliant Lynda La Plante.

The fabulous Mel Sherratt reflects on her first panel appearance at Harrogate – no hiccups! – and her experience of the weekend as a whole here.

Lloyd Paige talks about the Sophie Hannah and S J Watson event here.

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The weekend also resulted in a few ‘debate’ pieces in the media, which I’ll list separately.

Here (again) is my initial piece about using real life crime as the basis for fiction. And here is a BBC follow-up.

Charles Cumming talks about technology and the modern spy thriller.

In addition, Jake Kerridge penned a piece about whether crime fiction is misogynistic at heart. (And Leigh Russell takes issue here).

And Rosie Claverton makes some good points about crime fiction’s attitude to mental health issues here.

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Again: if I’ve missed something, feel free to let me know – either by email or below the line. Cheers.

Harrogate!

Posted by on July 21st, 2014

There’s a familiar comment people often make that a Sunday roast takes hours to prepare and then about fifteen minutes to demolish, although in this case, it’s probably more appropriate to talk about the brewing/drinking time for a pint of Theakstons Old Peculier. Regardless, I’ve been helping to work on the programme for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival for about a year and a half, on and off, and the weekend itself seemed to pass in a heartbeat. It always does, but in this case – for me – it’s especially surreal to realise it’s all over.

And yet it is! It seemed to go very well, I think. Certainly, there seemed to be a real buzz around the hotel this year, and I lost count of the number of people who came up to me to thank and congratulate me, and to say “well done” and tell me how much they were enjoying it. Which was lovely – obviously – and we’ll come back to that at the end. But first, I figured I’d list a few of my my personal highlights from the weekend.

1) Happygate!

There have been various incidents over the last few years, and it’s common currency (and I don’t think this is by any means unique to Harrogate) that there’s usually at least one ‘controversial’ panel. While a little controversy can be fun, it’s also nice once in a while to have panels that are just enormously entertaining and informative without anyone actively falling out. And I think we achieved that this year. Which is mostly down to the fact that every single panellist was great and interesting and sensible. In fact – without exception – for every single panel I had somebody come up to me afterwards and say “that was really, really good!” And from what I managed to see of each of them, I completely agree.

2) Romance!

There’s a young couple called Scott and Jo who come to the Festival every single year. Honestly, they’re probably as familiar to regular attendees as many of the authors. So it was a huge pleasure to arrange for my afternoon panel that, after I’d thanked the panellists and wound things up, there’d be time for one more question – whereupon Scott proposed to Jo in front of an audience of nearly 500 people. (She said yes). It was a really lovely moment – and the whole Festival team was totally into it: there was music and champagne and everything. I can hardly imagine how nervous Scott must have been, sitting there for the hour beforehand, but hats off to him, and massive congratulations to them both. Happygate.

3) My panels!

I didn’t fuck them up! They were the only things I was really nervous about the whole weekend, because, while I enjoy moderating, you want to make sure they go well, and you’ve got enough questions, and so on. Fortunately, my panellists were uniformly ace. In the afternoon, I had Lauren Beukes, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar talking all things cross-genre, all with charisma and aplomb. My late night panel on plot twists was a more relaxed affair, with Alex Barclay, Simon Kernick, S J Parris and Nick Stone gamely trying to guess various famous twists. At one point, Simon was scrabbling on all fours for his dropped buzzer, and the audience were shouting “It’s behind you!”. Loads of fun. (Although I think that if the audience had had a collective buzzer, they’d have well won).

4) J K Rowling!

On Friday night, with a capacity crowd at the Royal Hall, I got to introduce Val McDermid from the side of the theatre’s stage, and then stand very quietly for a minute or so next to J K Rowling as Val introduced her. Which was kind of a surreal pinch-yourself moment – I mean, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to do anything like that again. (And J K Rowling is possibly very glad about this). It was the biggest event in the Festival’s history so far, and a real thrill for me to have played a small part in it. The event itself was amazing. 

5) Special Guests!

But they were all brilliant. It was especially nice to have Lynda La Plante winning the Lifetime Achievement award and then appearing at the Festival for the first time (and going down an absolute storm with the audience). But they were all superb, from the paired conversations to the individual events. And all such genuinely nice people. One of the perks of being Chair is that I tried to make sure I went into the green room before all the events, special guest and panels, to check if everyone was present and happy, and everyone was utterly lovely. The lesson? Crime authors are ace. But you knew that.

6) Chatting!

It’s often impossible to talk to everyone you want to for more than a few minutes, and sometimes not at all, but one of the things I look forward to most about Harrogate is catching up with people I’ve come to know, and I managed to do a surprising amount of that this year. I was also fairly sensible. There from Wednesday to Sunday, my bedtimes were approximately: 11pm; 2am; 2am; 5.30am. (It’s not Harrogate for me unless I go to bed after dawn on at least one night; and I did get to the green room on the Sunday for the first panel at 10am). I talked to so many wonderful people – old friends and new – and had so many laughs. I said crime authors are ace, but of course, it’s also crime readers, agents, editors, publicists, organisers – absolutely everyone. It’s impossible to describe or explain all those little magic conversational moments that have you laughing out loud for hours on end, but there were lots of them.

7) And finally…

I said at the beginning we’d come back to all those “congratulations” and “well done”s. Early Sunday afternoon, I gave a short speech to the audience. I think it got progressively shakier as it went on (I can make a green room on three hours’ sleep, but holding a mic and talking for five minutes seems harder), but this is the gist of what I said.

As lovely as all the thanks were, I can only take the tiniest amount of credit for how good the weekend was. It wouldn’t have been anything without the various sponsors, including Theakstons and others and the various publishers. And at heart, it was a good weekend because we had so many excellent, interesting authors, so a huge thanks to everyone who took part and made it what it was.

Harrogate International Festivals are just amazing. Onstage, I described the various members of the team as being like ninjas; they don’t assassinate you, of course, but you hardly notice them on the desk and the doors, facilitating everything, doing a fantastic job of making sure the whole thing runs like clockwork. I didn’t get most people’s names, but Naomi in the green room was brilliant (and good luck, if you ever read this, with your philosophy degree at Leeds; it can lead to interesting careers, honest!). Also thanks to the Old Swan: I watched everyone transform that huge hall from lines of chairs to tables for the quiz in less than 15 minutes, and I’ve genuinely never seen anything like it. Thanks to Ann Chadwick for telling me who I needed to talk to and when. And special thanks to the utterly awesome Gemma Rowland and Sharon Canavar, who I think between them could probably have dealt with a direct atomic strike on Harrogate and still kept the Festival running without anyone noticing.

Along with the rest of the committee, they made the whole programming thing an absolute joy from start to finish. So thanks also to Jane Gregory, David Mark, Val McDermid, David Shelley and Daphne Wright for that. There has been no stress; I’ve genuinely enjoyed every single second. I’ve got a small handful of career vague-milestone stuff I keep: my first acceptance letter; my CWA Dagger; my Theakstons shortlist tankard. I’ve now got an admin folder stuffed with random bits and pieces, cards with hastily-scribbled speeches, my ID, and so on. Not as ostensibly glamorous, perhaps, but equally valued.

And most importantly of all, thanks to all the readers who came along, because you’re the people who help to make it the most welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic weekend of the crime calendar.

I’ll probably do a post rounding-up some of the coverage, and after that, normal service here – cynicism, gratuitous swearing, impotent rage, moral panic, etc – will resume. Before it does: thank you all from the bottom of my heart for contributing to one of the best and most memorable weekends of my life. You’re an awesome community, and I’m proud to be part of it. 

do you even fisk, bro?

Posted by on July 12th, 2014

There has been a lot of debate recently around self-publishing and traditional-publishing, Amazon vs Hachette, and so on. Certain people in the debate seem hell-bent on ‘fisking’ as the be-all, end-all of discussion, and I thought it was worth throwing out my thoughts on that particular issue here. This will be long. It will be dry. Run away now, while you have the chance.

1. What is fisking?

Fisking is named for the journalist Robert Fisk, after various conservative bloggers began dissecting Fisk’s posts in the early 2000s paragraph-by-paragraph, rebutting each and every single point. It’s a technique that basically quotes the entirety of a piece, interspersed with passages that refute each paragraph, or even sentence, with the aim of utterly obliterating the argument in the original.

2. What is an argument?

Yes, let’s backtrack a little. Bear with me. At heart, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone that a particular conclusion is true. Arguments take various forms, which we won’t explore here, but at heart every argument is a variation of the following: here are some points, and here is what they mean. The connecting tissue, in formal arguments, is a kind of logical glue that is recognised in various familiar argument forms.

For example, one kind of argument form is known as modus ponens. It’s a very clear (and to my mind – forgive my inner logic geek here – rather beautiful, and don’t get me started on its skewed relationship to modus tonens) one, and it takes the form:

(1) If X then Y

(2) X

(3) (Therefore) Y

Here’s an example of modus ponens in action:

(1) If self-publishing makes you more money then you should self-publish.

(2) Self-publishing makes you more money.

(3) You should self-publish. (MPP, 1, 2)

The bit in brackets at the end is just a courteous note to the reader that the conclusion – premise (3) – isn’t being stated outright like premises (1) and (2) are, but deduced via modus ponens from them. We call an argument like this valid, because if the first two premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well; there is no other option. If those first two premises happen to be true as well, then we call an argument like this sound. If a premise is false then a valid argument can have a conclusion that’s bollocks. A sound argument is valid, but because its premises are true, it has a conclusion that is necessarily true as well.

So is that example above valid? Yes, the logic is solid, so it is valid. Is it sound? Well, that depends on the truth of premises (1) and (2). I suspect we could all question the truth of those: (1) because there might be considerations other than money; and (2) because we might wonder whether that’s necessarily the case. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, is making as simplistic an argument as this. The point is, there will be room for debate even about the premises of the most basic and straightforward of arguments.

Here are two more examples of MPP in action:

(4) If self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one then you should self-publish many books.

(5) Self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one.

(6) You should self-publish many books. (MPP, 4, 5)

and

(7) If self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money, then you should self-publish books as quickly as possible.

(8) Self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money.

(9) You should self-publish books as quickly as possible. (MPP, 7, 8)

Again, these are both valid, but not necessarily sound. Again, the only thing to attack is the truth of the first two premises in each case. Again, there is obviously room for debate on each one.

Let’s complicate this with one final premise:

(10) You should self-publish many books as quickly as possible (Conjunction, 3, 6, 9)

Sticking all the premises together, the whole argument (1)-(10) is completely valid. But is it sound? Is the conclusion (10) true? That depends on the truth of premises (3), (6) and (9), which themselves depend on two different premises each. We can’t attack the logic; the logic is valid. But if any of the underlying premises aren’t true – even a single one – then conclusion (10) falls. It is built on perilous foundations.

I’m not – again – suggesting anybody is explicitly making this particular argument; I’m just picking examples vaguely relevant to the subject at hand.

Now, obviously, arguments are rarely stated as formally as this. Blogs, petitions and letters – even when presented with apparent conclusions, given with extreme conviction – are often rambling things, without polite notations given in brackets for people to follow the thread. People don’t think; people don’t express themselves well. From such a morass, it can be difficult to extract the premises the conclusion is resting upon so as to challenge their truth or the logic that connects them. But however informal the argument, however messy the piece, all those premises and logic are in there somewhere, and I’m afraid extracting them is what you have to do.

3. Is ‘fisking’ some kind of gold-standard for debate?

No, it isn’t. Fisking works reasonably well when you’re critiquing a short argument, or one that contains (and relies upon) lots of facts that can be shown to be bogus. It’s a ‘shock-and-awe’ debating technique, but there are various problems with it. Here are some.

a) Length

If you truly want to engage with an issue then it is an act of intellectual generosity to state your argument as succinctly and simply as possible. (And it is almost always possible to do this). Fisking makes this very difficult. A 1000 word essay, when fisked, can run to 3 or 4000 words. That makes it very difficult to address (never mind fisk in return). Eventually, if everybody responds in kind, the heat death of the entire universe occurs around the fifth fisking.

b) Concision

A fisking of the above argument (premises (1)-(10)) would address every premise, obliterating each in turn. We could do that, but it’s not necessary. If you understand the argument, then carefully demolishing one premise (and explaining why) is enough. Doing them all is overkill, and probably ensures that your opponent (if we must see it in such terms) will begin defending the strongest link as though that will secure the whole.

c) Missing the Point

Arguing paragraph by paragraph is generally pointless because, as stated above, the argument will not usually be laid out paragraph by paragraph. The premises and logical connections will often not go one-two, one-two: they will be dispersed and scattered throughout the piece. As such, by addressing single paragraphs you might refute points individually, but miss the overall point they’re building towards. You might take down some of the scaffolding, yet there are still ladders and walkways to the top.

d) Distraction/soapbox

You might miss the overall point, either deliberately or accidentally, and make an argument in response that – while valid in itself – takes the discussion off on a tangent that favours your position rather than honestly engaging. Issues can be addressed in ways that have different repercussions, which don’t necessarily engage with the substance of the point being made.

e) Aggression

Fisking encourages people to disagree with everything someone says, no matter how sensible or banal. It’s overly-aggressive. People enter into it with the idea that “I must crush him! Every single point he makes!” – and so they attempt to do so. It’s not reasoned discussion; it’s not an attempt to see both sides of a debate, understand nuance, talk like adults. It’s debate as scorched-earth warfare, and consequently it often becomes about an individual’s ego rather than the issues. All-too-often, in fact.

f) Boring

It’s often fucking boring. It’s often very fucking boring.

4. Of course…

There’s an easy way around this. Well – maybe not easy, but certainly simple. When you want to argue with someone, you look at their argument and decide the best way to address it. In a small number of cases, fisking will be the way forward. In most cases, it would be better to attempt to extract the skeleton of the person’s argument and deal with that. It’s hard work, and it won’t win you easy points with your crowd, but it’s the intellectually honest thing to do. Assuming – and, I admit, this is a big assumption – that something as banal as intellectual honesty is what matters to you. 

I’m reluctant to get into the whole Hachette vs Amazon affair. I’m a Hachette author (and despite what Hugh Howey might claim, they’ve always been good to me), so I suppose I have a certain bias, but I also recognise two corporate behemoths fighting when I see it, and I’m happy to leave them to it for the moment, especially when the terms they’re fighting over, while guessable to an extent, remain unclear. I have no desire to sign either an open letter or a petition. And if you’re a self-published writer, listen: I think you’re ace. I couldn’t do what you do – all power to you, seriously.

But I am interested, and I am engaged, and I’m increasingly seeing comments very similar to the following one on today’s Guardian article:

“Hachette wants to sell to Amazon at grossly inflated prices, and then wants Amazon to discount their wares, and take the loss, so their stuff will sell.? Amazon begs to differ”.

If you see that, or variations upon it, I think it’s fairly natural to assume that Hachette really must be the bad guys. (Side note: “bad guys”. Honestly, this is what the present intellectual level of the conversation reduces us to. Goodies and fucking baddies). The implication is that Amazon is being forced to buy stock at a certain price and sell it below cost price and take the loss, and Amazon aren’t having it. Who can argue that’s wrong?

Well, guess what: that’s what Amazon has been doing for a while. When you bought that Peter James book on the 99p promotion a couple of years ago? The author and publisher got the full amount. When you got that bestseller cheap? The same. Amazon didn’t beg to differ then; it was more than happy to eschew profit in the moment for a gradually increasing market share, building the ubiquity of its Kindle platform. And as it did so, it was misleadingly lowering expectations of what an ebook must cost to produce. Predictably, it now appears that it finally has the market share to not want to take that loss any longer.

That’s why the comment above is interesting: it’s true, in its own weird way, but it’s also gloriously spun, and the argument has a number of effectively suppressed premises. “Grossly inflated prices” implies that the natural price of ebooks is the artificially low one previously offered by Amazon, when of course the real price inevitably depends on the cost to the publisher – at least if we want the product to exist in the first place. And since publisher profit is based on an aggregate bet over a series of titles, with all the risk swallowed upfront in the form of advances, that’s no easy thing to calculate, especially in a world where digital is increasingly cannibalising paper. “Discount their wares … so their stuff will sell” ignores the fact that Amazon is the one that’s established that a price that amounts to a loss for someone is the effective price point for ebooks. They were happy for it to be a loss for them as they gained market share and leverage over their suppliers, and now suddenly – stunningly – it appears they might want to pass that loss up the chain. Who could have seen that coming? Honestly.

I’m not interested in taking sides here; I dislike it, along with all the pointless rhetoric I see on both sides. But to be honest, I don’t know many traditionally published authors who look down upon their self-published counterparts as lesser, while I see a hell of a lot of the latter expounding with glee on the downfall of traditional publishing, as though in this economic climate the collapse of an industry and all its associations – from financial to social and cultural – is something to be celebrated rather than mourned. Fuck that, and fuck off. There will always be readers, of course. But I don’t want to live in a world where we all work in a warehouse just so we can order stuff from it. I want to live in a world where there are bookshops and libraries on the high street, and publishers and printers, and booksellers and distributors. It’s a personal thing. And on that level, although I wouldn’t sign either the open letter or the petition as things stand, I’d be far more inclined to sign the former.

ideas

Posted by on June 28th, 2014

I did a talk at the Gedling book festival last week about ideas and where they come from. I really enjoyed the event, but my talk was a bit painful: I had a bad cough, and found it hard to get a decent lungful of breath, so my voice was all over the place and I had to keep glugging water to be able to speak. Nevertheless, here’s some video from the event:

By the way, the story towards the beginning about Download Festival is true. At the event itself, I explained what had really happened, but it’s been edited out of the video. Which is fine. The mundane explanation isn’t as interesting as just leaving it hanging.

Quick update

Posted by on June 19th, 2014

As of today, The Nightmare Place is officially out into the wild! Hooray! I’m still at the stage where I’m not sure what I think about the book, but that’s fairly normal for me at this point – and of course, my opinion on it doesn’t matter so much anymore. There are a couple of early-ish reviews here and here. Both are positive, which is a relief. I’ll post more as and when. I’m so incredibly rubbish that I haven’t even updated the Dark Room page with review quotes yet; I really must get onto this.

In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote for the Guardian about using real-life crime as the basis for fiction. And here is another piece I wrote about the ideas behind The Nightmare Place. Here is me looking a bit annoyed (I wasn’t) at a recent event, which went really well. I’m doing another one tomorrow near Nottingham, and then obviously there’s Harrogate to look forward to in only – eek – a few weeks now.

All that aside, I’m also writing. If everything goes according to plan – and why wouldn’t it? when does anything not? – then a sequel to The 50/50 Killer should be coming out some time next year…