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Friday, 28 August 2015


I've just been reading Wendy Jones's blog on this site. For a best-seller, and also someone so positive about publicity, I found it disconcerting that she omitted to name herself as the blog's author - I had to scroll through the date column on the right to find it.

Otherwise, I was impressed, but at the same time, somewhat questioning. Does Wendy enjoy other people's publicity? Like most people, I find advertising generally irritating, and for that reason, I've installed an ad blocker on my computer, but... if we don't tell people about our work,  and if it isn't mentioned in the media, how is anyone going to find it? I've recently been singing out about my two picture books which are finally on sale in my local Sainsbury's, albeit in the DVD section and at a ridiculously low price (but hey! I've got my advance and the royalties are trickling in).

Recently I've managed to re-publish as an e-book "KACHUNKA!" - my much-loved junior novel from the Nineties, published by Walker Books. The result isn't perfect, and I clearly have much to learn - I may well un-publish and edit (what a wonderfully flexible system e-publishing is). I naively assumed that Mrs Kachunka would live for ever, and was only informed of her decease when I was going to the Northern Children's Book Festival in Newcastle to publicise my Y/A novel, "FOR MARITSA WITH LOVE", and I wanted to take some "KACHUNKA!" s to sell. It was a shock.

 But working my way through the text again, I was suddenly struck by the presence of recurring archetypes in my writing (any shrinks out there?) notably a down-to-earth, powerful old (or ageless) woman. In "MY MOTHER'S DAUGHTER", she has a form of dementia which makes her commune with angels - explicable because she's a simple, devout Welsh chapel-goer a bit like my mum was. My 'Mrs Kachunka' is a powerful female/cat alien wearing charity-shop clothes, and convincing the most unlikely people that they are 'everything'  ( this book has always appealed to Buddhists, but my contact with Buddhism has been minimal). And the smelly ancient female  'clochard'  on the Paris Metro in MARITSA - she's yet another one. Where do these characters come from? I look back at my own life, and can't really find them. Do you discover disconcerting archetypes in your own writing? Interestingly, in my two unpublished adult novels they're totally absent.

Now to bad, wicked, despicable women. I've been developing one in a junior novel I'm working on. She's a demon, several millenia old and very glam and glitzy - I think, at present, we rather like our villainesses to be sexy, although the stepmother in Sally Gardner's "I, CORIANDER" is far from that - she is simply ugly and evil, and one of the nastiest bad stepmothers I have ever encountered. This book, of which I'd never heard, was described somewhere as a classic of children's literature, so I thought I should read it, and it's well worth it. Sally's an illustrator, too, like Chris Riddell - it must be wonderful to be able to do the two things simultaneously.

Are novels a form of Virtual Reality? Yes, I think they are. Do writers suffer (or not suffer, but enjoy) a mild, but creative, form of Multiple Personality Disorder? Yes, I think we do. We give birth to characters, but then they often take over. I have a very close friend whose daughter suffers from schizophrenia, which, in her case, takes the form of loathesome voices inside her head. She is about to take part in a psychological experiment in which avatars will mimic these voices, and she will respond. The results should be very interesting, and at the very least maybe tell us more about ourselves and what it means to be human. Joan of Arc heard voices, and what she, a peasant girl, did in response has gone down in history.

And still on the subject of the human condition, if you're in Edinburgh right now, do try to make it to "SPILLIKIN" at the Pleasance ( This unique production features a real, working robot, and it's a love story about a guy suffering from a terminal illness who programs a robot to take care of his wife in her old age. It's already attracted five star reviews, and it's both thought-provoking and unmissable. My daughter's company's latest production - go see.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Do Reviews Sell Books? – Andrew Crofts

Following Sandra’s Horn’s post last week, “That Selling Thing”, I thought it might be useful to consider whether good reviews actually sell books.

A few months ago I blogged here about producing a hardback of my novella, Secrets of the Italian Gardener through Red Door Publishing, and hiring Midas PR to send copies out to the traditional book reviewing marketplace in the same way they would send a new book from one of the traditional publishers – a copy of the book plus a press release.

The book had received plenty of reviews on Amazon but I know that it needs to get “out there” more.

Midas, who are probably the biggest and most successful PR consultancy in the publishing business, did exactly as they were asked and then there was the sort of silence that you would expect to happen while the reviewers read the book, wrote their reviews and their editors considered whether to run them.

A couple of months later a nice review appeared in the Daily Mail Literary Fiction section – huge international circulation because of the whole “Mail On-line” phenomenon. Then a good, short review in The Lady magazine. These were then joined by an absolutely brilliant piece on the excellent Vulpes Libris literary blog, I truly could not have asked for a better review.

It’s still early days and there may well be more coverage in the pipeline, but if not then I have to consider how valuable these have been. There has been no immediate impact on sales that I can discern, but I still think the exercise was worth doing. I now have some cracking quotes to add to the Amazon reviews on my website and anywhere else where the book is being promoted. They add credibility to the project if not actual sales. The Vulpes Libris piece has also been taken up by other blogs, meaning that it is reaching yet more “eyeballs”.

I guess creating a reputation for a book is like building a wall, one brick at a time, and each good review is one more brick in that wall, until eventually you reach a critical mass and the wall becomes visible to the naked eye.

There is also the bonus of having one’s morale lifted, if only temporarily, with this evidence that there are other people out there who do not think I have completely wasted my time in writing this story.

The most obvious lesson, however, is that reviews alone are not going to bring a book to the necessary “tipping point” of bestsellerdom, no matter how glowing they may be, and authors have to be continually thinking of new ways to spread the word.

I’m thinking now about Bookbub. Does anyone out there have experiences of that service, either good or bad?  

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Gorey has an E in it - by Ruby Barnes

I remember many summer holidays from my childhood. While my school friends were off burning their fair skin on the Costa del Sol, us lot stuck to the delights of the British Isles. My father was afraid of flying and my mother had a Scottish complexion that couldn't take bright sunlight or temperatures above a warm English summer's day. That was the reason given for our reluctance to leave the island. Or maybe we just didn't have the money.

Pinewoods at Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, England
English holidays, old-style

Our first family holidays involved camping in tents. Later we progressed to a caravan towed by whatever monster of a banger my father had recently purchased from a dodgy dealer. Then we upgraded to renting a mobile home (yes, old-fashioned British people go to trailer parks for their holidays!) on a large serviced site next to the sea in Norfolk, bringing kayaks on the roof rack of another dilapidated car and paddling around the salt marshes behind the dunes when weather permitted. Other times sitting on the harbour wall and fishing for crabs with whelks for bait. Of course it rained - a lot. Bad weather entertainment consisted mainly of reading. Fortunately we were all bookworms.

Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, England
Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, England

Fast forward to today and the current Ruby generation decided to stay on our island for this year's holidays. The island of Ireland, as we've fled the UK following various incidents with axes and tomato ketchup (or maybe that was just in one of my novels, I do get confused between fiction and reality). The realities of supporting Marble City Publishing and managing cashflow did influence our decision not to return to Switzerland again this summer, or Tenerife or some other mosquito-infested destination. Mrs R's Auntie Minnie provided us with a fast-track springboard to the advanced domestic holiday experience of her mobile home on a private seaside site. (Yes, trailer park holidays are a sought-after venue in Ireland as well!)
Three bedrooms, power shower, all mod cons. Okay, the mobile home was the same one Mrs R had stayed in as a child but it had charm. And the local shop had wine. After a few days of huddling behind the windbreak on the beach, listening to the pouring rain on the roof, reading all the books we had brought and separating the feuding ninjas as they fought over board games, we decided to head into the nearest metropolis.
'Is that how you spell gory?' Eoin asked me as we drove into the Wexford town of Gorey.
'No,' I said. 'This Gorey has an E in it.'
'But doesn't gory mean blood and guts?' Eoin responded.
'Yeah, like ninjas cutting the heads off zombies with their samurai swords?' Alannah added.
'Let's find out,' Mrs R said and we parked up.
After a nice lunch in a bistro we wandered the rain-lashed streets, looking for a bookshop to fuel our reading requirements. Both the kids had latched onto a couple of authors and were looking for more titles by them.
'Here,' said Mrs R. 'The Book Café.'

Zozimus at the Book Cafe, Gorey, County Wexford, Ireland
Zozimus at The Book Café, Gorey, County Wexford, Ireland

It was the kind of place Mrs R has always dreamed of owning and running. A quaint café attached to a bookshop. In we walked, past the cakes and buns, through to a higgledy piggledy display of books.
'Ugh,' I said. 'It's a secondhand bookshop.'
As an author, I'm perversely disinterested in bookshops. I can never lay my hand on something interesting, my memory goes almost blank, any title that springs to mind is out of print and the piles of promoted titles leave me cold. Secondhand bookshops, in my limited experience, are worse still with mouldering piles of unwanted paperbacks that people have discarded as not worth reading again.
Reluctantly I followed Mrs R in. As I was pretending to browse the shelves I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between a man sat at a desk (presumably the bookshop owner) and a couple who were buying something.
'I choose all of them individually,' the owner said. 'Each title is hand-selected by me.'
'Where do you find them?' the woman asked.
'All kinds of places. Car boot sales. Charity shops are a great source of good books. I only pick the ones I know will be interesting to my customers.'
My pretense at browsing became a little more serious. I noticed that the mismatched books on the shelves, looking like an untidy home bookcase, were meticulously ordered, alphabetically by author surname. Then I noticed the genre was strongly managed. I moves to another area of the bookshop and found several thrillers that I remembered reading. Sifting through my memories, I recalled author after author whose books I had enjoyed and soon tracked down the titles I had read. Opening the covers, the price was written inside in pencil. Some were €3, some were €4. A gathering and hoarding urge came over me. I would buy every book I had ever read. After picking up and putting down book after book I came to my senses and just enjoyed the experience.
It was only when we returned to internet land that I discovered exactly what this Aladdin's Cave was. Zozimus is the name of the shop behind the café. It has an inventory of over 30,000 books across a wide range of genres, with everything from bestsellers of yesteryear to first edition rarities. The owner's name is John Wyse Jackson and he has an interesting pedigree in bookselling, as well as having written and edited several books himself.
We left the bookshop with one title each. I found a hard to come by copy of The Fallen & other stories by John McKenna. John was one of my writing tutors at NUI and had won the Irish Literature Prize for First Book with this publication in 1993. As I paid the €4, I asked the owner if he ever wanted to keep any of the books he found.
'Oh yes,' he said. 'I just take them home.'
He handed me my McKenna book and I hoped he would mention what a great talent the author was and I could share a few stories of John's wit, ride on his coat tails and become new best friends with the bookshop owner. But he didn't.
Anyhow, in other news there is a new thriller coming out soon. Kill Them Twice, co-authored by eveleigh & turner. If Kill Them Twice should ever make it onto John Wyse Jackson's shelves then I wonder would he place it under E or T? By the way, that turner chap seems to bear a remarkable resemblance to someone I know ...

Kill Them Twice by eveleigh and turner
Release date 4th September 2015

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Adventures in CreateSpace by Susan Price

We seem to be blogging a lot about CreateSpace just recently.
A Flash In The Pen

     I have a CreateSpace confession. It was my job to turn Authors Electric's first anthology of short stories, A Flash In The Pen, into a CreateSpace paperback. I said I'd do it - I thought I could do it - and I made a right pig's ear of it.

When you log on to C/S, you download a template, into which you paste your book. They give you a choice of a 'blank' template which has little except the formatting for page lengths - and the formatted template, which has formatting for front and back matter, page-numbers, and headers for title and author name at the top of the page.
     For my very first C/S venture, years ago, I used the formatted template, and got hopelessly confused and frustrated by it.
     So I ditched it, and used the blank template, with which I got on okay. You simply paste your whole book into the template and off you go. There may be a bit of fiddling with chapter headings, but that's about it.
     But there are no page numbers with the blank template - unless you're a good enough programmer to add them yourself. Which I am not.
     A collection of short stories really needs page numbers because if most readers are anything like me, they don't read a book of stories in consecutive order. They look at the contents page, pick one they like the sound of, read that, and then return to the contents page to choose another.
      I asked the other Electrics what to do and was advised me to try the formatted template again. Since their advice has always been good, I followed it.
ACreateSpace Template
      The formatted template has pre-set pages for title-page, copyright page, acknowledgements and contents. Then it has ten chapters, with pre-set chapter titles, followed by 'Insert chapter one text here.  Insert chapter one text here. Insert chapter one text here...' Or chapter two text, or chapter nine, as it may be.
       You have to copy in each chapter title individually, overwriting what's already there. Then you paste in each chapter or story, in place of 'insert chapter... text here...' Afterwards, of course, you delete 'insert chapter X text here...'
     CreateSpace automatically justifies, adjusts page lengths and adds page numbers.

     But only ten pre-formatted chapters are supplied. Everything went well up until chapter ten - but I had 29 stories to paste in.
     At first, I copied one of the previous stories in at the end, then overwrote it with the next story. This worked well for a while - until, at some point, I accidentally picked up a bit of formatting from the 'back matter' of the book, and it all went skew-whiff, not to mention pear-shaped. Pages starting appearing with three lines on them, or with everything centred.
     Debbie and Chris - always the first Electrics to turn to with technical problems - advised me to download another template, and this time copy extra chapters from the middle of the book. In this way, I would avoid picking up code for the front or back matter.
     Chris advised doing this as your first task, before you do anything else - copy chapters from the middle of the template until you have enough for the book you intend to make, plus a few spares.
      I felt a right numpty for not thinking of this for myself. But it's advice I won't forget. Thank you, Chris.
     After some repetitive copying in of C/S chapters seven and eight, I had enough chapters - and succeeded in getting all 29 short stories in place, complete with page-numbers.

Karen, with sub-editor
     But there were still more problems - which made our editor, Karen, tear her hair when she saw them. One story alone, out of the 29, was unjustified. And there were fonts of different sizes and styles scattered randomly throughout the book.
     A little directed concentration mostly solved the stray and wandering fonts and sizes. The other Electrics spotted them straight away, so I suppose it was a case of familiarity having blinded me to it.
Looking closely, to check that all the headings were also the same  style/size  just never occurred to me. I had assumed that the formating took care of that. Obviously, I'm not editor material, and should put down my mouse, raise my hands and step away from the screen.

     The single unjustified story came about in this way - this one story just would not behave. It would appear with half a page of print on one page and three lines in the middle on the next. Sentences stopped mid-way across the page, or were centred.
      A bit of stray code had found its way in somewhere, and I could not track it down. It wasn't the case, this time, that I had scooped up code from the CreateSpace formatting of 'back-matter' - it was in the story itself. It didn't seem to be causing any trouble in the e-book version, but for some reason, burst into action in the CreateSpace one. (Or maybe Karen is just better at wrangling code than I am.)
          In the end, I went nuclear - that is, I cut that one story out of the anthology, copied it into Notepad, which strips out all the formatting code, and then copied it back into Word. I pasted it back into the CreateSpace book, and went through adding all the paragraph indents, italics, centering etc, by hand.
     But I forgot to justify. That's my justification.
     At least, it was a simple things to fix. I just went into the CreateSpace document, highlighted that story, and clicked 'justify.' Instant justification. O, the wonder of computers. - Of course, that altered the page numbers...
     Which brings me to the problem with the contents page.

     The 'contents' page is preformatted, with a table. In one column you put chapter title - or story and author. In the other column you put the page number. I haven't tangled with tables much, and failed to wrangle this one.
     One very long title pushed the column of numbers over, resulting in a sort of bent contents page - the numbers of the lower stories being much further over than those of the higher stories. I tried to correct this, but couldn't make those numbers jump through the hoops I wanted them to. I have never got on with numbers.

      While I was changing the page numbers after justifying the unjustified story, I had another go at the bent columns and found, by chance, that if I clicked on the number column, I could pull it over towards the right. This straightened the whole column, from top to bottom of the page. Well, who knew?

        CreateSpace has a useful, on-line previewer, where you can look at your book as a book, with turnable pages - or as a gallery of pages. It gives you the page numbers. It was while I was playing with this, and checking it against the Word file on my computer, that I fell over the next problem.
          The page numbers went: 81,82, 1, 2, 3... Aargh! This had been caused by my copying in extra chapters. Somewhere I'd picked up a 'new section' marker, which made the numbers start at '1' again.
          CreateSpace's advice told me 'to fix this in the native programme.' After some pondering on what this might mean, I went back to Word - which, after all, is a desktop publishing programme. Picking up a heavy hammer, I entered the cave where the numbering goes on.
          It took a bit of tinkering, but eventually I discovered that the 'page-numbering' can be instructed to 'continue from previous section.' I so instructed it, while idly swinging the hammer, and it did as it was told and put the numbering straight.
          I dispatched the latest version to Karen, on a usb, by
snail-mail - since we've discovered that Dropbox seems to add typos. I then went 'Scotlanding', as Karen put it. Well, someone has to venture up there, to check if the natives have all been blown away, melted in the rain or washed into the sea. (I can report that many are still clinging to the storm-blown rocks - and seemingly quite cheerful about it.)
          I returned, to find the usb had also, with a note from Karen to say I was almost there. There are a few stray underlinings and other typos to fix.
          I will get on to it - and it will be coming back to you, in paperback, soon. Apologies to all for the mistakes and the delay.
          But let's hear it for our star editor, our patient, eagle-eyed, whippet-loving editor Karen Bush, with the highest of standards, who will not be having with the much lower muddling-along of the Prices. (Habitually expressed by my grandmother as, 'Well, a blind mon on a galloping hoss woe notice - if it's a dark night.')
          And let's hear it for Lynne Garner, who designed the cover -  and for all the other Electrics, who not only put up a blog each day, but supply stories for anthologies, and advice, help and support on a regular basis.

Short, sharp shocks can be fun - and here's the proof in the form of a new anthology from the Authors Electric blogging collective.

Gathered here are 29 electrifying short stories covering a wide range of genres - whether it's action, murder, romance, comedy, satire, fantasy or the supernatural that turns you on, A Flash in the Pen has something for everyone and is guaranteed to give you a buzz.
                                 Paperback            UK                                     US

                     E-book                 UK                                      US

Monday, 24 August 2015

Do writers need holidays? - Jo Carroll

It's August. The schools are out. Children and young people mill about our streets eating ice creams. Families, if they can afford it, are heading off on holiday.

And those of us in teaching or factories or offices or libraries - anywhere with a boss and a contract - have the statutory right to take leave. Employment law enshrines a belief that we are entitled to time away from work to recharge our batteries.

I am aware that the situation is different in America, where most employees have very little paid leave - but here, in Europe, we see time away from work as reparative and not evidence of slacking. And families need time together, just to have fun, to remind themselves how much they love each other when they don't bicker every morning just getting out of the house.

And writers? Do we need restorative time? Days, weeks, away from the blank page and from social media, just to reconnect with who we are and what we really want from life? To breathe fresh air and remind our bodies that there is life away from the computer? To drag our minds away from those fictional characters that can preoccupy us and allow those around us the space they need in our thinking?

Or is such an interruption intrusive? As we settle down to build a sandcastle or pay for yet another go on the roundabouts, do we feel a twinge of resentment at these real people who need us so much and drag us away from our writing lives?

I don't think there's an obvious answer - I suspect each of us negotiates holidays in our own way. Some will hate every second away from the writing, while others relish free time to allow thoughts and feelings to wander without the compulsion to write everything down.

And me - where do I stand on this? 

Well, as a travel writer, I think I have the best of both worlds. I have a wonderful reason to visit exotic places, and then to write about them. But not everyone is so lucky - what do you think?

(If you want to see what I get up to on my travels, please visit my website: ) 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Oh God, Another Countdown by Lev Butts

I know, it seems like I just finished my last countdown. But once again, I find myself without an idea for this month's blog post. I used up all my righteous anger with Amazon last month, and it's been relatively quiet on the self-publishing front, so I don't have anything new to be upset about. The month before that, I gave advice on developing ideas, so anything I write about that will seem to be treading on my own toes.

and that never ends well.
I had thought about writing about creating convincing dialogue, but as soon as I sat down to do that, I forgot all the words. I could give you pointers on writing a self-published bestseller, but I'd have to do that first.

So that leaves a countdown. However, I am going to do it a little differently this time around. Last time, I held fast to my schedule and made sure I continued the countdown until it was done. I put new ideas aside, determined to use them when I was finished with the countdown. I wound up forgetting a whole slew of them, and by the time I finished the countdown, all the others had aged out of relevancy.

You know, kind of like these guys.
This time I will allow myself to deviate from the countdown if I have a good idea for the blog on a given month. 

So what's the new countdown about? It's an idea I had when I finished the last one. As you recall, the last one was my top ten books that had a significant influence on my life. While I was working on that list, I kept throwing out comic books, probably because of some ingrained literary snobbery that told me comic books might be too low-brow for this topic.

I realized, though, that the comics I kept throwing out were all very similar in one distinct way: They all dealt either overtly or subtly with how stories work. They were all to a greater or lesser degree "aware" of themselves as comics.

So this will be a countdown of my five favorite meta-fictional comic books.


Before we begin, though, allow me to mention a few titles that didn't make the list but are still worth a look:

Preacher - Garth Ennis (writer) Steve Dillon (art)

Preacher tells the story of Rev. Jesse Custer who, after being possessed by Genesis (a semi-divine result of mating an angel with a demon), goes on a quest to discover what happened to God (who abandoned His creations shortly after Genesis' birth and has become somewhat of a deadbeat dad). Along the way, he hooks up with two travelling companions: his ex-girlfriend Tulip O'Hare, a failed hitwoman; and Cassidy, a drunken Irish vampire and veteran of the Easter Rebellion. Together the three travel America and the world on a quest to find God and give him a good talking-to.

Equal parts irreverent blasphemy and existential meditation, the comic relies heavily on the tropes of the American Western: the ghost of John Wayne serves as Jesse's spirit guide; and they are pursued by the Saint of Killers, a reanimated bounty hunter who bears more than a passing resemblance to Clint Eastwood's William Munny.  At one point, Jesse even becomes the sheriff of a small Texas town. And as in any Western, the pages are filled with stunning landscapes from Monument Valley to The Alamo.

Unfortunately, I was looking for comics that dealt mainly with story in general, and Preacher is too specifically a Western to fit such a broad category.

Watchmen - Alan Moore (writer) Dave Gibbons (art)

Similarly, Watchmen, one of the first comics to be seen as literature instead of pubescent escapism, has too narrow a focus for my purposes. Where Preacher focuses more on the Western, Watchmen focuses more on deconstructing the tropes of superhero stories. 

Watchmen is set in an alternate reality closely mirroring that of 1980's.  The primary difference between our world and that of the story is the literal presence of superheroes, or masked vigilantes. Their existence, especially that of Dr. Manhattan (the only hero with true "super powers" as a result of a nuclear experiment gone awry) has dramatically affected and altered the outcomes of real-world events such as the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon, who is now entering his sixth term as president. 

The graphic novel ostensibly tells the story of the the murder of The Comedian, an ex-superhero-turned-government-operative, and its unsanctioned investigation by Rorschach, another masked vigilante who has refused to retire despite the outlawing of unlicensed superheroes in 1977. As with Preacher, however, there is far more going on. The book also subtly examines the psyches of people who would choose to be vigilantes as well as underlining the dangers of allowing others (be they superheroes or the government) unfettered sanction to protect us.

Deadpool - Marvel Comics (creators: Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld)

Deadpool is not a comic per se (though as the image above shows, he does have his own title). Deadpool is a super-anti-hero within the Marvel universe. He is, apparently the only character, though, who is aware that he is in a comic book. Deemed "The Merc With A Mouth," Deadpool spends much of his time conversing with the audience by breaking the fourth wall and arguing with the captions of his own comic panels. He's well worth the read, but sadly doesn't fit my purposes despite his obvious employment of meta-fictional devices since his adventures do not really delve very far into the tropes of story-telling as do the titles that do make my list.

Howard the Duck - Marvel Comics (created by Steve Gerber)

Howard the Duck has had his own title a few times since his first appearance in 1973 with the Man-Thing in Adventure into Fear #19. However, for most of these four decades, he has, like Deadpool, been a character moving in and out of other titles. Howard is from an alternate universe where ducks became the dominant species and now finds himself "trapped in a world he never made" (though now, apparently, it's a world "he's grown accustomed to") with a bunch of hairless apes. 

Howard's adventures are generally social satires or parodies of genre fiction (such as Kung-fu, Western, and Zombie films) with a meta-fictional awareness of the medium. His stories are existentialist, and the main joke, according to his creator, is that there is no joke: "that life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view." However, while each of these things might be enough to qualify Howard for a place in my countdown, his story never quite gels into a sustained narrative, remaining primarily a series of loosely connected episodes. 

Issue #16 of Howard the Duck's first run (September, 1977), though, is well worth a place on my list if I weren't limiting this list to five entries. It is an illustrated prose piece in which Steve Gerber sits in a diner and discusses with Howard the ins and outs of writing and the comic book industry by way of explaining why he hasn't met his script deadline (a plight I am all too familiar with myself).

So there we go. Next month: Number 5 (assuming, of course, I don't find something better to write about).

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Libraries, leave those books alone, by Ali Bacon

A keeper
I’ve never been one of those who ‘can’t bear to throw away a book.’ At one time it did go against the grain, because in my childhood books were treasures per se. We had lots at home, none were ever discarded, and quite a few of them have graduated to family heirlooms. But these days I keep a new book for a while, then, unless I’ve formed a particular attachment to it (a not unusual occurrence!) or think I might reread it or recommend it to a friend, out it goes.

I think this pragmatic approach stems from my career in university and college libraries, where weeding outdated material was a vital part of making room for new stock and the sight of an eager student or parent arriving with an armful of donations they couldn’t bear to chuck out was rarely a matter for rejoicing. (I also had feverish teachers noticing books in the skip and bringing them back to me. And yes, we had looked at every possible option for passing them on elsewhere, but really who needs an out of date textbook?) So I’m unsentimental about books. But I’m a private citizen. My collection is governed by my own taste and resources. Anyway, if I need that book again, I can always get it from the library. Or can I?  

A couple of weeks ago, Birmingham announced a moratorium on book-buying, apparently because it has thrown too much money at its new Library of Birmingham building.  I’ve certainly experienced the occasional freeze on purchasing, but in one of our biggest library authorities? Surely something has gone badly wrong.

The new Library of Birmingham. (*see credit)
It’s not that I object to libraries being centres for other activities, so I’m happy that LoB (strapline ‘Rewriting the book’) can offer a Google Digital Garage and Afternoon Tea for two, especially if they rake in some income, but it would be good to think that these are add-ons, not replacements for offering kids and grown-ups who don’t have digital media (or the money to visit a bookshop) access to the yet-to-be-bettered technology of the physical book.  

Of course it’s not just Birmingham. From the noughties onwards libraries have been fighting to maintain their identity in new partnerships.some of which work better than others. South Glos libraries come under the umbrella brand of of Active Leisure. This has its advantages.  Bradley Stoke Library benefits from being next door to the leisure centre (that is swimming pool and sports halls, in case we’ve forgotten that bit of newspeak) and where I live the small branch library is an important community resource where all kinds of things go on including a Memory Café for dementia sufferers, craft groups and, yes, book clubs.

But I sometimes wonder as I browse the fiction section how limited the book stock is becoming.  Even books by mainstream authors have to be ordered up from elsewhere in the region, and as for classics, if you decide it’s time you got down to Dickens, Hardy or Trollope, you’ll be lucky to find much of a choice. And I’ve just been on a trip to Springfield Community Campus in Corsham (details of upcoming book salehere), which turns out to comprise, yes, library and leisure centre.  ‘Campus,’ if slightly misleading to my literal mind, at least buys into the idea of learning, and it’s all in a spanking new building. But as my companion remarked as we cast a wistful eye over the colourful displays of videos and magazines, ‘there aren’t actually that many books here, are there?’

And finally
Bristol Reference Library. Worth preserving.
After a bit of a rumpus, the historic Bristol Central Library has leased its basement floor to Bristol Cathedral School who are going to convert it into their primary department, thus ensuring this great old building will survive a while longer. But what about the cost in terms of books? The second-handbook sale is already under way. I admit to feeling a chill run along my spine. I’m sure I can trust the library professionals not to chuck out anything valuable. But something doesn’t feel quite right. Apart from anything else, quite a few of the library requests I've made this year (none of them particularly obscure) had the location ‘Bristol Central Store.’ How many of them will find their way to the new bookstore and how many deemed surplus to requirements? But never mind me. I can sort myself out. I'm more worried for those who can't. 

Library usage has certainly dropped off, but does that mean we don’t need libraries? I don’t think so, and I don’t just mean they should persist as online learning centres or the social spaces which many of them have become. The internet is a wonderful thing, but e-technology is a largely unknown quantity. For many people books are the preferred medium for reading and learning. So why should we persuade them out of their allegiance to something that has worked for centuries? And there will be people out there of all ages, tech-savvy or otherwise - who have still to discover how books can transform their lives. It’s not going to happen if these people are never exposed to the kind of library experience we used to take for granted.
Yes, I’m talking books.
Rewrite them by all means, but don’t throw them all away.  

*Picture credit. The Library of Birmingham by Peter Broster on Flickr. (Creative Commons License)