Going nowhere slow

Last Saturday I didn’t drive my mom to Brean. It’s near Weston-super-Mare and we didn’t go but we’ve been before. It’s where my family often went on holiday and we’ve talked about going back for a look. We had a good go, too. She brought a deckchair, I bought Arthur C Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama.

Not just the novel but the specific edition, the specific paperback, the actual book I’d bought from Allen Stores, Brean, when I was a kid. Every time I’ve picked that book up off my shelves in the years since, I’ve remembered stepping out of that shop near the beach, holding this novel that would become so familiar. The now familiar sense of wonder that this science fiction novel gave me then; the now familiar sense of wonder as a writer at how Clarke was limited in his schoolboy prose.

Allen Stores has a similar split in my head. I can see it from an my adult self’s outsider perspective but I can feel it as a child. I have an image of a very small, very precise L-shaped section of the way out of the store, the slight touch of sand on the paving stones, the little sticks with plastic windmills, the warmth in every sense.

Grief. Just saying this to you, just reaching back into that time, I remember this. There was a spot near the beach where the top edges of a hollow in the sand were circled by bushes or something. This circle had grown over into a canopy so that the hollow was like a cave. A perfect den for a boy. Perfect enough that I ran back to it one summer.

Ran back to it, ran into it and found other boys there.

A group of them, younger than me, startled into statues by my booming into my private, secret, hidden den. I went into that den the boy I’d been the previous summer but it was like pressing through a membrane, I popped into the inside, I saw the boys, I saw they were younger than me, and saw that this meant I was older. I aged in that moment.

I didn’t stop, didn’t pause, didn’t slow down. Straight in one side of the bushes like last year’s boy, through the membrane and out the other side like this year’s older one. I grew up in that space, in that moment, and I don’t know what happened next. Maybe that was the summer I went on to the shop and read books.

Allen Stores is not there any more and neither are we. Because in all the years of growing up since then, I don’t seem to have grasped the idea of traffic. We drove from Birmingham toward Brean and after about five hours, we drove back again. The only possible Dear Diary entries are that we stopped at two service stations for a break and then lunch.

The thing is, I had a really good time driving nowhere. And I have done before.

I’ve been flashing back to childhood; let me flashback to sometime more recent. And to somewhere closer. Nottingham.

I’m hazy again about details so I can’t remember for certain whether Angela and I were yet going out or not. It was definitely very early on if we were. And I was very definitely trying to impress her, though that continues to this day. Again, not a clue what we were doing but I think we were going to some show in Nottingham, maybe a meal. Something that I somehow thought she would like and that through extension she’d like me.

Maybe I’d remember what it was if we’d ever got there.

It wasn’t traffic this time, it was navigation. I was driving and then I was driving and driving and driving. We spent the entire evening driving from Birmingham to Nottingham or really to around and around and around Nottingham. I have no idea why it was such a confusing route to me, except that I guess that’s a lie.

For we might be driving, Angela and I, my mom and I, but what’s really happening is that we’re talking. I’m listening. There’s a line in a Jason Bourne film, of all things, where a character mentions that listening to someone talk while you’re driving is relaxing. It’s more than that for me. It’s a cocoon. Clearly it doesn’t matter to me whether we get where we’re going or I’d have got out a map of Nottingham, I’d have insisted we set out earlier to beat the Brean traffic.

I’m tempted to say that it’s like having a spotlight on your passenger, except that feels too harsh, too glaring, too interrogating. Maybe it’s that your passenger has a stage. We don’t get long conversations any more. I have a lot of coffee meetings and deeply enjoy facing someone as we talk but there is something different about in a car. Side by side, both facing forward. Both accepting the fact that this is going to be a long journey so we might as well relax into it.

When I’m on my own I need BBC Radio 4 or I need Apple Music, only occasionally do I need silence. When someone’s with me, someone special, I need them.

I’ve no idea how my passenger feels. My mom says she had a good time. And Angela didn’t complain plus, reader, I married her. So hopefully it’s a shared thing and not just something important to me.

But there is a lesson to be learned here, clearly.

Never get a lift from a writer.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?

Is that it? Is Kindle dead?

Naturally you know that anything you ever read that includes a question mark in the title is obligated to answer it with the word ‘no’. But this time, I think it’s ‘no’ bordering on ‘maybe’. I’m just not sure what I think about it.

Here’s the thing. Author Lee Child was on BBC’s Newsnight this week about the spat between Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Child isn’t with that publisher and he has been vocal about supporting Amazon in general, but he was on Newsnight to tell Amazon off. That’s not what interests me most, though. I’ve appended the full interview way down there below but during it, he said this:

“Amazon is fantastically ambitious, they want to change the world, they want to dominate and the Kindle simply hasn’t. It hasn’t worked as well as Amazon wanted it to work. It’s become – you know, America’s market is about two years ahead of the British market and the verdict is in, in America. And to put it in the vernacular, Kindle is ‘so 2012’. People tried it out back then. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, most people were completely indifferent and it has settled into a good, solid niche which is fine from a business point of view but not good enough for Amazon.”

You can argue that authors, especially ones with long and successful track records in hardback and paperback, might want to think that Kindle is a niche. I think we’ve all expected and/or feared that ebooks will one day replace all books and there’s certainly been a massacre of high street bookstores.

But Lee Child is an international hit and he does huge business in America: though he’s a British writer, he sets his Jack Reacher thrillers in the States and very, very convincingly so. I tend to give him some credence, then, especially as there was also news this week of how shops are not necessarily being beaten by online sales as much as expected.

Over the past 20 years, e-commerce sales have grown to about 6% of total retail sales (excluding gasoline and food services) and about 11% of Forrester’s top 30 product categories.

But though the e-commerce growth rate is attractive, it has slowed from about 30% per year in the early 2000s to less than half that rate today. If the trend continues, e-commerce sales will increase from 11% of Forrester’s top 30 categories to about 18% by 2030—higher in some (such as music) and lower in others (such as food). While 18% is a significant number, it does not exactly spell the end of physical stores.

E-Commerce is Not Eating Retail – Darrell Rigby, Harvard Business Review (14 August 2014)

The full piece then goes on to talk about how the lines blur anyway:

Imagine that a customer goes to a Macy’s store, learns that the product is out of stock, and uses her smartphone to order the product from another Macy’s outlet, which ships it to her home the same day. Is that an e-commerce sale or a physical one?

You can extrapolate too much from any one or two sources but it’s not unreasonable, I think, to wonder if all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Theatre was destroyed by radio and radio was destroyed by television but all three are strong again today. Maybe over time things will even out and Child is right that Kindle will be just one format instead of the dominant one.

The trouble is, I don’t like Kindle.

The original hardware Kindles irritated me with how the screens would flash black every six pages or so, I never got used to that distraction. Plus the typography, the very look of the words on the page niggled me. The hardware is better now and, moreover, you can get Kindle software on just about everything I use: iPhone, Mac and especially iPad.

I buy quite a lot of Kindle books to read on my iPad.

But I’m afraid I do it reluctantly. Kindle books are ugly. I mean, they are just ugly. I say this as someone who has some of his books out on Kindle and I definitely say it as someone who uses Kindle to get many books that aren’t available anywhere else. But it’s not the greatest reading experience. I’ve just been reading a book that has a lot of photographs in it; the way the book is formatted you’ll sometimes get a caption on the next page so I was often skipping back and forth to read caption, see photo or vice versa. Every time I would do it, the entire book would reformat and put the text in a different place. What was a half page at the end of a chapter was now a full page at the end of a chapter.

If a book is available on both Kindle and Apple’s iBooks, this reading experience business is enough that I will buy the iBook. Even though typically that’s a little bit more expensive.

Reading an iBook is a genuine pleasure, though. I’ve looked to see if I can show you a comparative screenshot, grab the same page from a Kindle ebook and an Apple iBook and there’s not really one that conveys this difference to you. That does tell me that the difference is slight. But it’s real and it’s enough that it matters to me.

Plus, I have some skin in the game. The most popular edition of my The Blank Screen book is definitely the Kindle one – though you’d be surprised, the paperback is pretty close – but I think the most gorgeous version is the one on iBooks. I’m just astonished how good that looks.

And then you get things that cannot be done on Kindle and in fact cannot be done in paperback either. Writer David Sparks has a range of books he calls the MacSparky Field Guides that are a mixture of text, graphics, video and audio, all working together. It’s not a gimmicky use of technology, it’s exploiting the tech to get us something good. His latest is a guide to making presentations and it is just beautiful.

Not just beautiful, it’s a very good read. (And listen. And watch.) But it’s definitely also beautiful.

Books like his and, yes, mine, are so good as ebooks that I would actually be sorry if paperbacks rose up and took over the world again. I just want them both. I want them all. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Lee Child’s new book is out later this month on Kindle and in hardback here in the UK and early next month there in the USA.

My own The Blank Screen is on Kindle and paperback via Amazon UK and Amazon US plus that gorgeous version on iBooks for iPad and Mac everywhere.

David Sparks’s MacSparky Field Guide: Presentations is exclusively on iBooks here. Even if you’re not going to make a presentation, a look at the free sample just to see how well he’s done the book.

Lastly, here’s that full Lee Child interview on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark:

Fortune and glory, kid

I’ve only been thinking about this for two weeks. There was a book event at the Library of Birmingham and I was listening to the speakers, half wondering if I could steal how funny and charming they were, when a guy asks a question.

Actually, no, it was more that he stated a fact but added a question mark. He said to these authors: “But the point, the aim of it all is to write a bestseller, isn’t it?”

There are two answers to this and they are both no.

You can have the very short ‘no’ or you can have the longer, more considered, let’s have some tea, kind of no which you already know is what’s happening here. He stated this fact and every part of me thought no. It was that immediate, that certain, and it has not taken me two weeks to think about it. Because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I’m hoping that talking it over with you will sort out my head.

I think all that I’ve been churning over comes down to a split between people who write and people who don’t. There are two types of people in this world and they both intend to write novels. I suspect that when you don’t write and therefore don’t know what heavy spade work it is, you only ever hear about writers when they are interviewed. Writers are interviewed almost exclusively only at the point when they have a new book out. This would be because perhaps the only thing more boring than watching video of a writer typing is watching a video of the much longer periods where they aren’t.

But still, the result is that we see writers when they have something new out and inescapably, then, it looks pretty easy to have something new out. They were only on the telly the other day with the last thing, weren’t they?

Then because news wants facts and because there isn’t a gigantic amount you can ask a writer about their new work that won’t spoil their new work, we get the topic of money. This is especially true when the writer has earned some amazing amount.

So.

It’s easy and they make a lot of money.

Maybe it’s natural, then, to think that the point of writing is to make money.

Now, certainly, I write for a living and I like to eat occasionally, I prefer sleeping indoors. And actually I have very often been described as a commercial writer because I like thrillers and Doctor Who and magazines. But I used the word ‘like’ there. I could’ve said “because I write thrillers and Doctor Who” but I said ‘like’. I am a commercial writer but it is because that is where my tastes lie, it is not because I have a spreadsheet saying these are more lucrative jobs than publishing five lines of poetry every ten years.

I do make a living and writers can still make a lot of money, even today, but the answer is still no.

If you go into writing to make your fortune, it is conceivable that it will work, but it is bloody unlikely. So unlikely that doing this for that reason is simply stupid.

Plus, it’s a funny thing, writing: your secret intent has a way of becoming very apparent to the audience. If you’re doing it for glory, we can tell. I interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight the other week and he was talking about how he as all these film and TV projects that mean a lot to him but there are also these many others where he’s been the writer for hire. But, he said, whatever it is, you have to do it as if it is the most important thing to you.

That’s not a definable thing. You can’t have a formula that says 10% more effort equals 10 times the success of a piece. Yet hack work stands out very clearly.

So you have to write what matters to you and you have to hope that it works out enough that you can survive.

Maybe the real barrier between writers and non-writers is that the nons can’t comprehend that anyone would be so stupid as to do this. They’re right. There’s no question but that writing is a stupid thing to do.

Yet I’m okay with being stupid. I’m used to it in everything else, I might as well enjoy it here. And it’s not as if I seem to have any choice in the matter, but I am glad that I am over here on this stupid side. Because it pains me, it actually causes me pain, when I hear someone being surprised that, say, JK Rowling has written another book. The genuine incomprehension you hear sometimes, the idea that she’s daft when she’s done all those Harry Potter books and made her fortune.

She is daft. We all are. Of course she keeps writing. How could you not?