I recently published “The Gorgeous War”, a short story on Amazon.com about a product which allowed the great majority of people to be, effectively, beautiful. I wrote it primarily because it’s a subject which fascinates me, in the fact that our society, especially with the rise of handheld devices, is so incredibly visually orientated.
That orientation has had all sorts of curious effects on our society, from the manufacture of political candidates (look at Forza Italia) to the arguable reversal of feminism and the rise of the WAG, to the recent Abercrombie and Finch row, where a business suggested that a selective approach to seeking custom based on the physical attractiveness of their customers might well be a reasonable business model. Odious as it is, I’m not sure they were wrong in their analysis.
There are those who despair at it, who question the fact that we seem to value the beauty of a world class model over, say, a world class research chemist. I’m not so sure: after all, is it right to differentiate between a person who inherited DNA which made them physically attractive over a person with DNA which made them intelligent? Probably not.
Then, of course, there is the reality that physical attractiveness as a general rule has a shorter lifespan than intelligence.
But what would happen if we could manufacture beauty cheaply?We can do a lot now, of course, with plastic surgery and weight reduction surgery, but supposing we could do it at a cost that permitted pretty much everybody to access it?
Ever since I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a published author. In fairness to myself, I had no illusions about being the next Hemingway or the next Fitzgerald, that was not the goal. I was reading Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum and later John Grisham and these were what I wanted to do. In short, I wanted to see people reading my books in airports, and made into TV mini-series starring that gruff one from Simon and Simon and one of the lesser girls from Baywatch.
So, I went and did what you are supposed to do. I wrote a 65,000 word novel, The Unisio Agenda, which was pretty awful (a suspended animation Hitler was just one of the minor features in the plot), and sent the first chapter to a load of literary agents, having researched and discovered that these were the fabled gatekeepers to the great publishing houses, or at least had coffee and a bun with them occasionally.
In the following weeks, self-addressed envelopes would make my heart thump just slightly faster as they lay on my hallway floor before telling me very politely that “this was not for us, but best of luck elsewhere”. One or two even gave a little advice on the novel. Not one, to their credit, sent me the fabled “Do humanity a favour and take a hammer to your PC” remarks.
I set that novel to one side, and started on my second, The Ministry of Love. This novel was the result of a running joke with a friend of mine about the government deciding to intervene in people’s love lives for the better, and the more the joke ran, the more I felt there was material for a story. It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finished it, and sent it out to the agents, feeling more hopeful that I was now a better writer and perhaps my subject was a bit more commercial. That and the fact that it featured a serial killer butchering celebrities in various creative ways, which I felt was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the time.
Again, the rejection slips came back.
At this stage, the aspiring writer can do one of three things. The first is rail against the conspiracy in the publishing industry to keep his/her unique voice out. The second is to keep trying, normally by writing another novel, and the third is to just accept that it is not to be, and give up.
The first was not an option, because I just didn’t believe it. I had started to read a lot about the publishing industry and realised that it was not a vendetta against me personally, but an industry in crisis. Being an HR manager in my day job, I knew that rejecting a candidate for a vacancy was not a judgement call on their fitness but a reflection that someone else fitted the profile better.
Of course they could not take risks with unknowns like me. Just look at the piles of books on sale now, and how many have to be fronted by a celebrity who (hopefully, at least to the publisher) brings his or her own market with them. It was just too risky for publishers to take a punt on people like me. The “What about JK Rowling, Dan Brown et al?” argument would be thrown back at me, but they were just flashes in the pan. Traditional publishing, through its own economic necessity, was looking less likely as an option.
The second option was to keep trying. A funny thing about writing is that you’d probably do it anyway, in that the desire to commit a story to page is there no matter what. It’s a question of getting it out of your head; so continuing writing is not a painful option. However, there is also a question of ego, which plays a huge role. You can see yourself being transformed from the romantic notion of The Guy Who Is Writing A Novel to guy in Firefly tee-shirt sitting in back room writing his 15th rejected novel about teenage vampires who are allergic to blood but can travel through time. It’s a thin line, and you’re very conscious of it.
Option three is to just give up, leave your manuscript in a drawer or on your hard drive, and carry on with life. Many do, especially when you realise how long it takes to write a novel, and without the validation of publication, you query as to whether you are wasting your life on this?
I say three options, but there is a fourth. The dreaded “self publishing”. Up until recently, self-publishing triggered certain images. An author announcing a new book. Admiration from friends and family, followed by realisation that author has not being endorsed by professionals putting faith through cash on his skills as a writer, but has paid for book to be published. Slightly grimaced “God bless your diligence” smiles all around. Embarrassed author either lashes out at industry for not recognising him, or feels like a fraud, or a nut. Or both.
Then I read about Amazon’s willingness to let self-published authors sell direct for shared royalties, dangling the keys to the kingdom in front of me. It’s here that you make a decision.
You accept that your book will probably never see the light of day traditionally, so you can either wait for the day the Great Editors In The Sky recognise your genius and come calling, or you can put it out there yourself, and that is the biggest temptation of all.
The opportunity to deliver direct to the marketplace, either as a Print-On-Demand actual book or as an eBook. It’s a brilliant strategy by Amazon, because it triggered the “what if” in every aspiring writer like me to put my book out there just to see what happened. It taps into the brilliant “what’s to lose?” section of the writer’s brain. In fact, it even goes one step further, because the old argument, that traditional publishing houses want nothing to do with self-published authors has been killed stone dead. If anything, self-publishing has become a form of showcase for the publishing houses to see how potential authors perform in the market without investing a cent.
There are costs. I commissioned a professional cover designer, ebook formatter, developmental editor and copy editor, and all that costs money, but I reckoned that as I was competing against professional books, I had no choice. Actually, the copyediting turned out to be a huge challenge, and to this day I am still finding typos despite professional eyes having roamed the manuscript on multiple occasions. Interestingly, I also find typos in professionally published eBooks too, which makes me wonder about the format itself.
After much effort, I launched my novel, The Ministry of Love, and a year and a month later, a radically rewritten version of The Unisio Agenda, The Gemini Agenda (now Hitler free). I hyped it a bit on a politics blog I write, and with my modest following on Twitter and Facebook.
A tiny number of people bought my books. Were the publishing houses right? Quite possibly. But here’s the thing: people are buying my books every month, books that would have sat on a hard drive otherwise. I’ve received reviews and emails from people who have read and enjoyed them, and more to the point, I’ve actually enjoyed the whole process. Will I lose money? Probably. But as a hobby, like photography or cycling it has its financial costs but also its pleasures. There are some, like E L James and Amanda Hocking, who will make fortunes from it. There are others, like JA Konrath who see a new business model and a means of making a decent living.
But for me, it allowed me to not quite live an aspiration but get close to it. Will I write another book? Possibly, although the sheer effort required mixed with the feeling that I am just indulging myself expensively will act as a deterrent. There is also the fear, in the back of every self-published writer’s mind, that his friends and family, behind nodding heads and encouraging smiles are rolling their eyes at his putting out this stuff. But regrets? Not one.
“EarthOne”, my first published short story, is now available here on Amazon.com as an eBook, and shows once again the dexterity of Amazon.com in permitting the publication of fiction in a format that would just not be economical through traditional publication means. It is, for me, a means of experimenting with fictional ideas that I feel would not justify a novel.
“EarthOne” tells the speculative story of a piece of software designed to run a country, and how society deals with the idea, as leaders and their peoples from a tiny island nation to a failing US city to the People’s Republic of China confront both the challenges and indeed opportunities of the concept, ultimately asking themselves: can we trust this thing we have created?
As ever, I’d really appreciate honest reviews on Amazon.com
Anyone with an interest in the publishing world and books generally will be aware of the battle going on between publishers and Amazon over the setting of prices. The publishers argue that if book prices are set too low, it will wipe out the ability of writers (and publishers) to earn a living. Amazon, and the self-published community disagree, for obvious reasons. I thought I’d throw in my tuppence.
Let’s be honest: the internet will probably wipe out bookshops, or at least turn them into niche businesses, because they just cannot compete with the vast range and buying power of Amazon. Having said that, Amazon can’t really replicate that moment of browsing in a bookshop when you come across a book you have never heard of. The problem is that you are more likely to use the bookshop as a showroom, and seek the book more cheaply online.
The other side of Amazon is the part which affects me not as a customer but as someone who has written a book. I hawked it around literary agents, was rejected, and in the old days would have had to just return my script to a bottom drawer and let a dream die. Yet Amazon allowed me to commission a cover design, get it edited and eformatted, and publish it. It has sold very modestly, but it is out there, and I have met people I didn’t know who have read it. Some enjoyed it, some didn’t, but I got to fulfill a lifelong dream because of Amazon which the traditional publishing industry denied me.
Now, I say denied me, but don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who feels embittered by the rejection, because as I read more about the economics of the traditional publishing industry, they had no choice. They just haven’t the money to take risks anymore on unknowns like me, which is fair enough. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed stop me going direct to the market with my offering, something which Amazon permits me to do.
Is it fair that I help crowd the market with what is essentially my hobby, selling a novel for €2.99 and dragging down prices? I have bought two ebooks from Amazon, priced far more than €2.99, and whilst I am enjoying reading them I do feel a bit hard done by at the price (€12.99) for what is essentially very modest post-print work. What they seem to be missing is that if the books had been cheaper, I probably would buy more, a fact they are going to have to wake up to sooner or later.
The Gemini Agenda: A plan to take over the world before some other fella does.
An excerpt from my latest enovel, The Gemini Agenda, available from Amazon.com (Just here to the right of the page. See, I’m spoiling you!)
Honorius Plenty III, on his twenty-first birthday, had learnt in this very room that his great-grandfather had sunk the Titanic.
The billionaire swivelled in his chair to face the floor-to-ceiling window that afforded him a clear view of Central Park. He had grown up in this huge penthouse, taking possession of it after his father had died, and yet he never grew bored of the view of the city. When he needed to think, this was where he turned, dimming the lights to allow him to drink in the flickering vista of the park and the skyline, feeding his sub-consciousness, somehow allowing an idea to emerge.
He still recalled the day thirty years ago. His father, with whom he had had an indifferent relationship, had summoned him, sat him down, and opened the wall safe. From it he had withdrawn a worn leather-covered journal and returned to his desk. He had then begun reading.
That morning, Honorius Plenty III had finally understood why his father seemed to carry the world’s burdens upon his shoulders. He had always assumed that his father was just a dour man who took the managing of the world’s third-largest private family fortune with an overdone sense of gravity. As his father spoke, carefully reading passages from the first Honorius Plenty’s personal diary, the young Honorius realised that his father was borne down with the guilt that his family fortune was based on the deaths of thousands of people in possibly the greatest theft of all human time.
The diary described the massive ship slipping under the icy, still water, and the dark night, and the cries and moans of the survivors. It had been the lack of wind that had done for the pride of Belfast. The stillness of the night meant that no waves crashed against the side of the wall of ice, and so it had not been spotted by the lookout until it was too late to allow for adequate remedial action. Or at least, that was how his great-grandfather had wanted history to see the events of April 14th and 15th 1912.
The truth was different. The iceberg was not the cause of the tragedy. The actual cause was a British master criminal who had meticulously planned the operation, having received a fabulously enticing nugget of information from one of his many spies and retainers. This particular one had been a senior official of His Majesty’s Treasury who indulged in both opium and the delights of being spanked by dusky maidens from the Dark Continent.
The collision with the iceberg was not an accident, but rather had been contrived with the use of an electrically powered tugboat that had previously been anchored to an iceberg within the Arctic Circle. Engineers had spent six weeks excavating and securing the buoyant mountain to the craft, ensuring the vessel would remain both well hidden and manoeuvrable.
Contrary to both historical belief and James Cameron, the impact of the iceberg caused only minor damage to the mighty ship’s hull. It did, however, provide a well-planned and executed distraction for the limpet mines planted along the hull in specific locations. Each was radio controlled, and each exploded as the iceberg neared its position. Each device penetrated the hull and permitted millions of gallons of water to overwhelm the vessel’s overly optimistic anti-flooding devices.
Regardless of how the flooding occurred, history observes that from that point on the vessel was condemned to a tomb on the bottom of the Atlantic.
As the diary proved, history got that one wrong as well.
The Titanic did sink beneath the waves, depriving over fifteen hundred individuals of their lives. What history had not recorded was the fact that engineers hidden within the Titanic herself, in concealed oxygen-supplied compartments, immediately activated electrically powered compressed air pumps. At the same time radio-controlled plates secretly fitted beneath the ship’s waterline were moved mechanically into place, sealing the punctures in the hull.
This complex operation had the effect of preventing the ship from sinking to the ocean floor, instead suspending her sixty metres beneath the water’s surface.
Seven days after sinking, and with the area clear of recovery vessels, the pumps were activated. The ship broke the surface again, and was moved out of shipping lanes by the now camouflage-free tugboat. This operation was, coincidentally, the reason why in 1985 it took Dr Robert Ballard’s team so long to locate the wreckage.
She was, quite literally, not where she should have been.
The vessel was boarded, and the specific cargo removed with explosives from its strong-room and then transferred to the tugboat. Two other vessels were also required to assist, such was the size of the cargo. Once the cargo had been removed, the mechanical plates holding back the water were jettisoned, causing the ship to flood bow first, pulling its stern and magnificent propellers up into the air before snapping its spine and severing the beautiful behemoth in twain.
Although it is forgotten now, Britain in 1912 was a nation paralysed by fear of foreign invasion, a paralysis fuelled by the burgeoning market in invasion literature such as Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands.
As a result, the British government, wary of war with Imperial Germany, had begun to make provisions for a number of eventualities, one being a defeat by Germany and possible invasion.
Under such duress, His Majesty’s Treasury instructed that one of the defensive measures undertaken was that two-thirds of the British Exchequer’s gold reserve was to be moved to Canada for safe-keeping.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was not a good idea; although on the plus side, it did create the world’s first billionaire.
It also demonstrated that when rotund Belfast pillars of society declare that “God Himself” cannot sink a given vessel, well, that’s just looking for trouble.
Supposing you went into a nightclub looking for a lover, where the odds were stacked in your favour. Where everybody else was single, in the same social and economic class as you, interested in the same things you were interested in. In fact, supposing you had seen pictures of everyone going to that nightclub beforehand, and had been able to pick which ones should be let in. And supposing every person in the nightclub had done the exact same thing.
The Government is doing this for the entire single population of the country. Many people are delighted. But what about the people who profit from the lonely?
Who is going to eat all that chocolate cake and ice cream on a Friday night?
The Ministry of Love: available as an eNovel on Amazon.com.