Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.

Back podcasting at last

Ten years ago I started a weekly podcast called UK DVD Review and for a while it was in the top ten of all podcasts of all types across the world. Chiefly, I think, because there were only nine podcasts at the time. For five years that became an important show for me in how it seemed to validate certain things I believe about radio: for instance the fact that you may be broadcasting but you’re only ever speaking to one person.

It was a factual series yet I also got to dabble in drama. I remember some Top Gear DVD coming out the same week as a Knight Rider one so I had an episode that purported to be coming live from a race track somewhere. Top Gear’s the Stig in a race against Knight Rider’s KITT. The joke of it being that the two cars zoomed off leaving me behind and I spent the rest of the episode getting back to my home studio.

Or there’s an okay film called The Prestige which is based on a deeply wonderful novel by Christopher Priest and I reckoned there was a bit of The Princess Bride effect about it: if you saw the film first, you preferred it to the book and vice versa. (The Princess Bride film is not one pixel as good as the book.) So I staged an argument with one person as a fan of the film and the other as a fan of the book instead. Only, I was both of them. I argued with myself and it was all about writing dialogue that had pace and vigour but also difference. I did muck around with the stereo image so that one of me was on the left of your speakers, one on the right, and I did do a spot of acting to just make the tiniest change in my voices.

But it was the writing that did it. The real reason for doing UK DVD Review, before it became an important part of my life just for itself, was that I am a scriptwriter and I wanted to practice writing dialogue. It was my own dialogue, I scripted every word but the secondmost thing I’m proud of in the whole thing is that you couldn’t know that. I promise you couldn’t and that mattered to me a lot.

The firstmost thing I’m proud of, by the way, is that to this day I have friends I made because of that show. I used to do this thing where I’d end the year with a poll and have people voting on the best DVD releases. For the very last episode I’d get them on and we’d have a blather. Loved it.

That was the best part of the year but it was also why I stopped. In 2010, I ended the podcast because I simply could not give it enough time to do that end of the year show well enough. I often wonder whether I should’ve found a way and it touches my very soul how often I get asked to bring it back.

I haven’t brought it back. This time last week, I had no thought of doing a podcast of any description. I have been contributing to one by MacNN.com, the Macintosh News Network site that I write a bit for, but that’s just being an occasional guest. Plus I got to do an episode of Gigi Peterkin’s The Successful Failure and I remember telling her how good it was to have a little taste of radio again. I’ve done a fair bit of being interviewed on BBC local radio too and it’s all been reminding me how much I love this stuff.

Then I did some work with Birmingham City University that included a minute or three just walking through their seven radio studios. There is something inexpressibly great about a radio studio but I’m going to try expressing it. I think it’s the potency, the pregnant feel that this still, quiet, empty space can and will become alive and vibrant and an entire new world.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m back doing a podcast but I hadn’t thought of it until a casual chat last Monday. MacNN staffers were discussing how well the podcast is going and somehow the idea of an extra weekly episode was floated. By Wednesday night, I’d produced the first episode of what’s called MacNN: One More Thing and it’s available on iTunes and Soundcloud right now. It’s a separate series, though you get it in the same iTunes feed as the main show, and I co-present it with MacNN news writer Malcolm Owen.

So it’s not the same as UK DVD Review in that I don’t have to find ways to carry each episode by myself and it’s more about technology than arts but I’m producing and co-presenting. This is week 1 and actually I don’t know how long this will go on for. The ratings are already good but One More Thing is here in part because there’s a lot of Apple news going on at the moment and that will ebb and flow. One More Thing may need to run in seasons. We’ll see.

But, oh, to be producing again, even if it were just for one episode. I cannot explain the sheer joy of crafting radio: hearing your own voice as just one more asset to be edited and used. Shaping a programme, driving it forward, applying all my news skills to making a topical, timely, interesting episode. Applying all my writing and editing skills to fashioning a complete, coherent edition. One More Thing isn’t supposed to be edited much but of course it is and the old satisfaction of an edit done well came back in shovels.

I have an advantage that I’m encouraged to make this podcast different from MacNN’s other one and that’s a blessing. MacNN’s main podcast is produced and presented by editor Charles Martin and I could not match him if I tried. So I’ve devised a different format, a different tone and it runs for 30 minutes which is quite short for an Apple-related podcast but just seems right for a midweek extra series. In my head I’m doing the It Takes Two spinoff from Strictly Come Dancing or the Extra Slice for The Great British Bakeoff.

I’ve now daunted myself and I’ve got to go produce episode 2. Thanks.

But it’s good to be back and it’s far more good than I imagined. Write yourself a radio show, would you? It’s the best thingm especially for writers.