Wednesday, 24 October 2012

To e Or Not To e: The Paper VS E-Book Debate

I've slipped blogging for a few weeks due to novel writing, freelance proofreading and typesetting, short story writing, family stuff, and the day job, but it's time for me to air a few views (and also promote some of my stuff) on the e-book versus paper book argument.

As I type this I realise the importance of the 'versus'. Of course, it doesn't have to be one or the other. There doesn't have to be a winner. And I guess it comes down to personal preference. For me, there's nothing quite like having a physical book in my hands or seeing the range of books (both read and unread) on my shelves. Imagine walking into a bookstore which is simply a row of PC's where you plug in a device to make a purchase. No thank you. This doesn't make me a luddite, but it does raise questions in my mind as to how books are viewed as objects when they are just pixels on a screen. Do they have the same worth?

I'm raising the question now, as the publishers of my 2009 novella, "And God Created Zombies", have now made it available on Amazon's Kindle (at an initial price of only £1.53). BUY IT NOW!

For a publisher, it's easy money of course. Very little work has to be done to convert print-ready text to an e-book version. Nowadays books begin life as a digital file in any event. It's also a useful way to keep books available once they're 'out of print'. As another example, when I ran Elastic Press we published the award winning collection of short stories, "The Turing Test", by Chris Beckett. Winning an award made an immense difference to sales, and a few months ago the author uploaded a version to Kindle which is selling a steady amount of extra copies a month. All money in the bank. BUY IT NOW!

Yet, as I said above, I do wonder what value is placed on books that you can't physically see. And the obvious parallel here is with music. When I started buying music from age 11 upwards back in the 70s the choice was either vinyl or cassette. Vinyl was dominant, of course, and I retain a large collection of albums which - to be honest - I can no longer play! However, I cherished that music: ensured I played the tracks in the order they were meant to be played, and enjoyed reading the lyrics and inner sleeve notes. There were always subtle differences to both sides of the record. The final track on both sides, being a closer to that side, were selected to be played in that order accordingly. CDs changed this, of course, as there is only one side to a disc. MP3s have changed it totally. My 13yr old daughter has but a handful of CD's. Most of the music she listens to is on YouTube. She has rarely listened to an album all the way through - rarely savoured an album all the way through. It feels to me that music has been taken out of context (certainly out of my context), and I'm sure the same will happen to books, such as my 2010 novella, "Ponthe Oldenguine. BUY IT NOW!

Unlimited access to music or books - particularly where a physical product isn't involved and often where it might be free or heavily discounted - surely undermines the value attributed by the owner to the product? I can't argue that if someone would buy an e-book but wouldn't buy a physical book then that is anything but a good thing. I understand how people have said they can downsize their property because all their books are now on one electronic item. I get it. But isn't it just better to hold a physical book, better to turn pages, better to get an indication of where you are in the book as you move from front to back, better even, to drop a physical book accidentally in the bath. Aren't they just better? Aren't they?

Well, as I said at the start of the blog, I guess the main thing is that there isn't necessarily a "versus". Recent reports have indicated that whilst e-book sales are soaring (up 188%), physical book sales have been unaffected. For publishers and writers - should this trend remain - it can only be a win/win situation. And I suppose if some e-book devotees are happily putting all their previously phyiscal books into second-hand and charity shops, then that's win/win for us hard core paper devotees too.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Nothing Remarkable

What do we want to achieve when we create something artistic? I'm just starting to write a new novel and I have a vision of where I want it to go, who I want to market it to, and a desperate hope that I might actually make some money from it. But apart from all that, what I really want is to do justice to the original idea. The idea is key: it's the portal to creativity. And if I finish the novel - and even sell it - without having satisfied myself that I've done the best that I can, then I will have failed - no matter how critically or commercially successful or unsuccesful it might be.

This begs the question: why does so much mediocre work exist? Whether it's fiction, movies, music, or art. None of its creators begins with that intention, with that goal in mind, I'm sure of that.

Of course, appreciation of any art is subjective, but I thought I'd share a couple of recent examples where the words "Nothing Remarkable" - about as damning as "Competent" when it comes to Art - could be applied from my own humble opinion.

First up, I'm sorry to say, is the new album from ex-Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell.

As has probably been evident from a few of these posts, I'm an old punk and have always been a Stranglers fan. Importantly, I don't blame Hugh Cornwell for leaving the band when he did (others think otherwise). Both sides have gone on to produce some great albums (The Stranglers with "In The Night" and "Suite XVI" and Hugh with "Guilty" and "Hooverdam" for example). But the latest album from Hugh, despite a few interesting songs, is just...well...just another album. The music is inadventurous (rather plodding, unlike "Philip K Ridiculous" or "Irate Caterpillar" for example), the lyrical wordplay so pleasing from solo songs such as "Within You Or Without You" is largely lacking, and the middle section of the album ("Bad Vibrations", "God Is A Woman", and "Love Me Slender") is void of new ideas and/or is clumsy musically, lyrically and vocally. There are some good tracks: "I Want One Of Those" is a deadpan account of consumer culture, and the closer "In The Dead of Night" at least exhibits some creative lyrics ('a swarm of blinded men take turns to photograph their plight in the dead of night'). Yet overall, it's nothing remarkable. And certainly that song isn't the long classic album closure similar to The Stranglers' "Down In The Sewer" or "Too Precious" as some reviews have intimated. The style and tone are a little 60s garage in style, and it's difficult to believe any new fans will created from this work.

I'm sure this isn't a reaction Hugh would have wanted. I give it a grudging 3/5. Neither a positive or a negative. (Just to address the balance, I would also give the most recent Stranglers album - "Giants" - 3/5 for exactly the same reasons whereas for both artists' albums immediately preceding the current one I'd give 5/5). I hope it doesn't disappoint him.

Now, onto a movie. I watched "Margaret" recently. An obviously art-house style film which charts a teenager's descent into banality chaos following her inadvertently causing the death of a woman in a bus accident (she is running beside the bus, distracting the driver, at the time of the accident). The movie is 150 minutes long (180 if you're unfortunate enough to be watching the extended cut, as we were), and, for the most part, is utterly uninteresting.

All the elements of a good social drama are there: absent father, mostly absent mother, annoying teenager on the cusp of everything, death, morality, cause and effect, guilt, but despite it's obvious attempts to be high-brow there is nothing which grabs the viewer by the throat and demands our attention. Yet, simultaneously, I kept watching. For the entire three hours. Now, some movies make you cheer at the end, others make you swear, but when this finished my first thought was "Oh, now we can finally go to bed then." Not the best reaction to a piece of art in my opinion. It was - quite simply - nothing remarkable.

Maybe the problem was with dialogue. If Lisa (note, the main character is not Margaret - watch the film to find out why it's called thus) was a bit more sympathetic, or even empathetic - it would help, but so would have the writer not giving the character ridiculous non-17yr old sentences to spew. Despite it's obvious desire to anchor in our reality, her dialogue rarely did any such thing. It was all so New York upper middle class. Even her descent into 'depravity' was middle class - a little bit of drugs, some swearing, losing her virginity to a bozo and then also having sex with a teacher, having an abortion. It was so mundane it made me want to...well, do nothing: not shout, cry, get excited, annoyed. Just...well...bleurgh. I'm positive this was not the writer's intention: but something obviously went wrong during the execution of the creative process. Others will disagree.

Banality, then. How can it be avoided? Is it an issue with the original idea, the execution, or the reception? Of course, I can't pretend I knock out perfect fiction everytime I write. And views on my work are just as subjective as with anything else. But - dear god - please never let me be bland. I crave some kind of reaction. Although - I suppose - even at the bottom line - "Nothing Remarkable" is better than nothing at all.