William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

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Matt Haig (2017) How to Stop Time.

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I rattled through this book in no time. A simple story told in the first person voice of Tom Hazard who was born on the 3rd March 1581 and is now—I’m crap at arithmetic, so I’ll jump from page 1 to page 316, near the end of the book—and say Tom is around 439 years old. He’s done a lot of living. And his daughter, Marion, who is also over 400 years old, calls the American President ‘a motherfucker’. Wisdom comes with age.

Only it doesn’t. Look at Trump. There’s a shadowy character a bit like him called Hendrich, who is rich, but obviously not as dumb or he wouldn’t have lived to be near 1000 years old. He is the leader of a shadowy organisation, the albatrosses (or albs, for short) whose purpose is to preserve the lives of those that live to a Malthusian age. The albs help Tom change his identity every eight years and move on. That’s the optimum time before people begin to notice people like Tom don’t seem to have aged and begin to ask difficult questions like what kind of wholemeal diet are you on? Tom explores what it means to be human.

Tom and the other albs, or in medical parlance, ‘anagerias’ do age. ‘Just much slower…generally it is a 1:15 ratio. Think of dog years which are a ratio of 1:7, or Cher, who grows younger and gets a better figure every year. Tom admits to be a bit of a name-dropper (and Zelig) in his relative youth, after his mother was drowned in a ducking chair as a witch, he plays the lute in William Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the Bard saves his life when the same the witch finder that snared Tom’s mother tries to arrest him.  By then Tom has responsibilities. He has met the great love of his life Rose, who is two years older than him, which isn’t anything, but remember that ratio. And remember in the seventeen century living to adolescence and not being covered in body lice was a considerable achievement. Rose aged quickly, Tom stayed the same. What devil is this? their neighbours asked

Each chapter from the past is interspersed with Tom in the present. He’s taken a job in Oakfield School in London’s Tower Hamlet territory. He’s the new history teacher. As you’d expect he’s pretty good at the subject. He watched Rose die in the great plague, was there in the great fire. But he’s not a stay at home. He was on the Adeventurer, sister ship of Captain Cook, when he discovered New Zealand. He played piano in Paris during the roaring twenties and congratulated F Scott Fitzgerald on his new novel The Great Gatsby. He had to reassure him and his wife Zelda that the book was indeed Great, before the infamous couple nipped off to have cocktails with others of the Parisian avant-garde such Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

Those who cannot remember the past, observed the philosopher George Santayana in 1905, are condemned to repeat it. And you only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth.

A life without love has no meaning. But it’s a bit like Fight Club. The only rule in Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. The only rule in the albs have is you don’t pick up attachments. Not human, Tom gets a dog from Hackney Pet Rescue Services with sad eyes to keep him company and to take on walks in London Parks.  ‘History is people’, Tom tells his head teacher when she interviews him for the job.  But he’s not a real person, he needs rescuing from himself, because he’s not allowed to fall in love. ‘We are who we become.’ So, of course, he falls in love with the French teacher, Camille. Of course, he does, he was born into the French aristocracy all those years ago.

Will Tom or won’t Tom? We know he will. People are what they are. There’s wisdom here. Look at Trump, he could live to be 1000 and he wouldn’t learn a thing. He’s a monkey brain in long pants and painted on quiff. ‘All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players, And one man in his time plays many parts…’

Read on.

A simple contract

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Anybody that knows me should by now know I’m under contract to UNITED AUTHORS PUBLISHING LIMITED trading as UNBOUND.  I’ve agreed to deliver a novel currently entitled Lily Poole and it will be around 72 000 words (ahem, 84 000, but that’s word inflation for you). The Deliver Date will be 1st October 2014 or a later date agreed between the two parties, or in more simple terms – whenever.  The production costs currently stand around £5 100 and I’m about 40% of the way to achieving that target. So far, so boring.

The agreement is made on behalf of three parties. I’ve already named two of them Unbound and myself, but I’ve also got an agent representing me, Luke Neima c/o of ABCtales.com, Burgeon Creative Ideas Ltd.  Well, Luke Neima is no longer c/o ABCtales, he works for Granta (or some other publisher) and also for Unbound. I’ve only met Luke once and he’s the kind of likeable guy that even guys like me that usually don’t like likeable guys, like. He is a secret agent.

You see in his short tenure at ABCtales he looked round for things to sell. It hasn’t really got any assets, runs at a deficit,  but that didn’t really stop some start-up companies going for millions in the  hyperinflated stock exchange bubbles in modern global economies of the late 1980 and early 1990s and as late as the banking-induced shocks of 2008.

Unbound belongs to this latter slow-growth period. But it bucked the trends of businesses going bust by recently announcing its publishing portfolio’s one-millionth pound sale of books and ebooks. Putting this into content Unbound as a publisher is the size of a field mouse. Amazon is, in comparison, a Shard-sized tyrannosaurus. It has what Joe Nye called ‘soft power’ and with each second that passes it adds more byte. Unbound and Amazon do not compete in the same markets. Unbound offers luxury goods-books that are priced accordingly.  But Amazon determines market prices, which most books can be charged.   Under monopolistic pressure it screws down prices so low that smaller publishers—and all publishers are smaller than Amazon—cannot compete and professional writers are generally being paid less and less. This is being reinforced by a greater number of writers seeking publishing deals, and self-publishing, which has never been easier or cheaper, and this is reflected in the price charged to the consumer. Often this work is offered free –which is the new consumer baseline price, or sold at discounted prices often around, or less, than the price of a box of Christmas’ crackers.  There are exceptions to the mass-quantity rule, in which an increase supply, while demand remains the same, brings down market prices. Superstars of writing such as Rushdie, Amis, and J.K. Rowling (fill the name in of your favourite writer here) get paid a premium.  There is another, what seems at first sight, a contradictory trend self-published writers epitomized by the aptly named Fifty Shades of Grey sell so many units of their self-published books that they too are paid a premium and join the pantheon of established writers working for more mainstream publishers. This is easily explained. Successful writers are only successful as long as they can consistently sell a certain number of units. Thank You for This Moment, for example, sold 200 000 copies in two months in France and the English edition is now out. The success of books, or luxury goods,  like Lily Poole are premised on pre-selling around 200 copies at around £20 for the first print run. When the figure for Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir drops, she too will be dropped. Success is all about the numbers. We inhabit different worlds, but with many of the same rules.

Author needs to write books that sell. Laurie, or Ewan or myself from ABCtales, for example, have been parachuted into this new business model of crowd funding, we need to write the books and sell the product we have made. Unbound allow us to legitimize our unpaid work by using their logo, or imprint, to help our selling.  How we do that is really up to us. But in a standard business model sellers are in search of buyers.  Unbound outsources direct selling but reaps the benefit of us harvesting family and friends. In simple terms, it is vanity publishing with a real publisher.

Unbound only sell a limited run of each book. Printing is outsourced. Most products under the Unbound imprint have tended to be more novella- sized than novels (well under 60 000 words) which tends to keep printing cost down.  Proof reading is outsourced to Luke Neima, and his zelig like transformation from ABC to Unbound, to proof reader, is complete when he also turns up to help make the provisionary video needed for promoting the book and the author to the paying public, which is added to costs. Books do not get published until all costs are paid for in advance by pledges.

Writing a book and selling a product are two different skills.  I’ll simplify the selling process for you. Online sales nominally depend of the use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. Sellers directly ask people for money or what is termed ‘pledges’ for our unpublished book. Success, or failure, is hypothetically dependent on how many people you know online and also to a certain extent on your online presence.

My experience is nothing much works. The Clydebank Post, for example, ran a story about my crowd-funded book Lily Poole. It featured a photo of me standing gormless beside a gravestone. Nobody pledged. I tried selling a free editing service. It wasn’t free, so perhaps ‘free’ should be in quotation marks, as I was seeking pledges before aspiring writers submitted their work to me. Then again perhaps the use of quotation marks around ‘free’ is an unnecessary affectation as nobody pledged using this route.

Yet this is contradictory. Unbound is a successful, publishing firm and Laurie and Ewan from almost the same starting position achieved sales targets of over 100% to my 40%. I’d explain that in a number of ways. The last 10% of sales is, in a sense, a free-sales run. Success is predicated on success. After achieving sales of 90% Unbound begin to advertise their latest successful product and, this is crucial, to a ready-made reservoir of book buyers. Laurie and Ewan for example are no longer dependent on asking  people that they know directly or indirectly for money.

Laurie had another marketing strategy for selling his product. He piggy-backed on a well-known charity. That way he could legitimately suggest he was not just selling himself and a book, he was selling for a charity. This added around 10% to the total cost of the book, but as this was paid through a slight increase in pledge levels so the cost was spread.

He also acknowledged he had hundreds of friends. Crucially, I’d argue, he also had the right type of friends. Let’s call them middle class people that own houses. Ewan, I’d guess, has similar middle-class friends and he also contributes online to UKAuthors who also supported his work.

Those that have pledged to Lily Poole, so far, have been immediate family, a few friends and fellow writers on ABCtales. My friends tend not to be middle class home owners. They generally don’t have an interest in books (or me, unless I’ve done something stupid, which I’d guess nullifies the friendship scenario. Loser!).

I’m working class, but a reader, so it’s also worth mentioning the idea beloved of certain types such as hedge-fund managers that there’s a hierarchy of human capital and they tend to be rewarded at the top with an income to match their skill sets and lesser mortals at the bottom.  I’m not in this elect group. I do know Laurie and Ewan spent more time online than me, translated into dour Presbyterian terms, which means they worked harder than me and deserved success. Whether they used a particular cultural skill-set, I lack, I can only make an educational a priori guess. Asking for money is never easy. Asking friends for money they don’t have, for a product they don’t need, is more difficult for non-home owning working class folk. Perhaps the laws of diminishing returns is applicable here. I like to think so.

ABCtales has been good to me in lots of different ways. I piggy-backed on Abctalers to help sell Lily Poole.   I don’t think of myself as a writer, but I like to write. Sooz, a fellow ABCtaler, expressed it so well. The need to write is almost a physical act, a bit like masturbation, but onanism has its limits and for writing to reach any kind of climax it needs a reader. ABCtales is a community or writers, but it is also (or should be) a community of readers. When I first showed my work online Ewan kinda ran the site himself. That might not have been other users experience but it was certainly mine. He was encouraging and very good at nudging me along with things I should be paying attention to, for example, spelling, syntax, sentences, meaning and what the fuck was that about? but all in a thoroughly nice way.  He disappeared as ABCtalers do over the years only to turn up later as competing for crowd-sourced pledges for publishing.

ABCtales act as my agent. They receive 25% of net profit. That’s the money that’s left after the costs of paying Luke and other zeligs have been met for editing, publishing etc. If you look at the figures for the first print run it’s not very much. But I’m sure Unbound and ABCtales would hope for the kind of Harry Potter magic that makes small publishing houses into large conglomerates.  I’m not a fan of agents. Their parasitical and cancer-like growth have outsourced many of the rights accrued to ordinary workers offer the last seventy years. But ABCtales has been a service I’ve freely used.  It has also given me the chance to get published.  I don’t begrudge and have no great interest in the possible and what remains more a hypothetical—rather than actual—profit, especially as it would subsidize other would-be writers.

Unbound take 50% of net profit. The average long-term return on capital investments stands around 5% per annum. ABCtales has offered writers’ content which Unbound need to keep growing.  Creative industries with around 10% of GDP are one of the few growth areas in the economy. Unbound needs to keep growing, making superprofit, and needs to keep selling to stand still. It’s a symbiotic relationship with ABCtales.

My concern is simpler, finish what I started, but I’m not sure I can. I’m not moaning about it, simply highlighting a trend based on factual analysis. When I write things down, as I have here, I understand them better with a cherry on top.