Friday, 17 February 2012

What do you expect, for 99 cents?

Remember those days, not too long ago when you used to pick up a book in a bookstore? You would admire the front cover, read the back cover and possibly the forward? Then, if you were unfamiliar with the author’s work, perhaps have a quick glance at a few pages of writing inside, check out the font size (if you are over 50, this is highly important!) and decide whether to buy it or not.
Is it me, or, in those heady old days, were all books roughly the same size? Yes, there were some that were really fat, the sort of thing you would take on holiday. And the odd one, that was quite specialised, was a bit thinner than the rest. If someone had padded a book out by using large font and pictures, you could get an idea of it pretty much straight away.
    But now times are changed. To start with, things changed when we all started buying books on Amazon because they were cheaper. But still we might drop into a store, and give a solid copy the once over. At the very least, Amazon told us what size it was and, even if they didn’t, we trusted them.
Then along came ebooks. At first this wasn’t an issue because most, if not all, ebooks were just electronic copies of a paper book.
    Then, as we know, things changed. Along came the indie writer - self publishing, self editing and self marketing their own work. Amazon embraced them; why wouldn’t they? As the readership changed, the need for hard-copies in order to sell large volumes disappeared overnight and with it went our rights as a reader.
    Realistically, Amazon’s product reviews should continue to maintain the quality of the work on sale but – unless the book has sold thousands and thousands – that doesn’t really work. A book, with 4 good reviews could be great or rubbish, depending on who wrote the reviews - which could be, heaven forbid, the author themselves. All this we know, now.
     What they didn’t for-see was that by offering books at only 99 cents, readers would –and perhaps should - be prepared to accept less. Not just less in quality, but less in volume. As far as I can establish, that has to be the only reason that they have now removed the WORD-COUNT from the product description.

So my question to you is: How long should an ebook novel be

   Traditional publishers will advise that a novel is 80-100,000 words long. That is what it always used to be. But is an ebook that long? For 99 cents?
    I recently studied the case of John Locke, the first self-published author to sell 1 million books on kindle. Out of curiosity, I checked out a couple of his books, but they weren’t for me. As an exercise, I checked to see how many words they were – he now has a dozen or so on sale a claims to publish a new one every 8 weeks – but I couldn’t find the answer anywhere. Amazon weren’t going to tell me, were they? Eventually, I did find out, that they are 35-50,000 words only. And every one, sold at 99 cents, has made it into the Amazon top 10 sellers list.
    So we now establish that an ebook is acceptable at 40,000 words, half that of a paper novel. Next, I checked out a few other titles in the top 100, to find some are even less. Wool by Hugh Howley is only 12,000. He tells us it is a novelette: ‘Science fiction has a long history of celebrating the short form’ – his own words. At least he tells us.
    So, are we, the reader, being sold short? Or are out expectations just too high for what value we can expect for the meagre sum of 99 cents?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Fish-finger sandwiches

      Rain arrived at last in France to coincide with lambs, which is never a good combination. We only have a handful of them, but one pathetic little creature has not only managed to find her way into the sitting room by the fire, but into the hearts of a few followers via social networking. Under the name of Daisy Death-wish, this tiny lamb with all but zero chance of survival now has her own Facebook page and daily blog. What is the world coming to, when sheep take to the airways!? Please look her up online, if you get a moment!
      Earlier this month we took a tour of the UK to catch up with a few friends and family, combined with a bit of business. Firstly I found myself in Reading, which I have to say, is not very nice. After dining out in a local café on fish-finger sandwiches – which were surprisingly OK actually – we were checked in to a swish hotel that claims to have once been a railway station. All I can say is that the bed was so hard I would rather have slept in the railway station itself! At 3am I am stumbling around the sterile hotel room with backache and my neck permanently cocked at 45 degrees like a bent downspout, considering joining the numerous homeless in the street outside whose cardboard looks infinitely more comfortable. At dawn I sit at a desk in Reading, reading, and considering what a strange language English is. Note to self, never visit Reading again.  
      After a trip into London and then to Rock to visit family, we took a cheap flight to Edinburgh for the weekend, en-route encountering the most officious airport official I have yet to meet. Why do airport staff have to be so nasty? Perhaps I should compile a list of these dreadful people who go out of their way to make life of the traveller as uncomfortable as possible, and publish it annually. I could call it the Gestapo awards? Or perhaps the person-I-would-most-like-to-get-knocked-down-by-a-bus awards? He was definitely this month’s winner and it took incredible self control not to knock him into the middle of next week when he put his hand inside my trousers for the third time in the name of airline safety!
      Anyway, a few cold days in Edinburgh were quite a welcome change from the routine of constant animal husbandry back home, with the weekend centred around what has often been one of the best sporting events in the annual calendar; that of the Calcutta Cup, Scotland’s rugby-field battle with their auld foe, the Sassenach English. Sadly, this year’s encounter was a dismally disappointing affair as the home team, despite being hot favourites, took an uncharacteristic path towards self-destruction in the second half and the Red Rose went home with a hollow and cold victory. Needless to say, my white shirted celebrations were kept fairly low key; a wounded Scot can be an unpredictable and often dangerous beast. I should know, I live with one!
       Nevertheless, we had a good time touring a few pubs and restaurants and generally revelling. However, I am getting increasingly irritated by chic inner-city gastro establishments and their use of pretentious jargon to pad out restaurant menus. Is it absolutely necessary to inform me of the life history of every ingredient? Slow roasted hand-picked Northern Spanish tomatoes blended with a hint of the finest sauce from deepest Worcestershire. Yes, it’s tomato soup; the rest is b*llsh*t! Fresh cod hand-caught in the North Sea on a windy day by a bloke called Brian, subtly coated with crispy batter made from Old Cripplecock’s finest ale and cornflour hand ground from wheat organically grown on a tiny farm is west Lincolnshire, served with hand-picked hand-washed hand-sliced hand-cooked King Leopald potatoes grown on a Bavarian-style allotment by a pigmy gardener in the Virgin Islands. I don’t care. From now on I am adopting a policy of only eating meals that are described in ten words or less. ‘Damn nice fish with good honest chips, salt extra!’ Now that’s what I would buy.
      While on the subject of Bull, the next few days saw me exchange the city streets of Edinburgh for the cold concrete of Stirling’s new auction mart, while I helped a pal out who was exhibiting cattle at the national bull sales. Regular readers of this publication will heed that its usual bovine contributors are Tony Neath, with his well researched monthly history of cattle in general, as well as Clive at Westwood Farm, proprietor of one of the oldest and best pedigree herds of Hereford cattle in the British Isles. Both may occasionally wax lyrical that the older British breeds, from generations past, are now all but lost, as they make way for the greed of the Continental ones, with their faster growth and commercial appeal. Each of them will no doubt rue that day.
      Well, I am glad to announce that not only have space-hoppers and Bulgarian wine come back into fashion, but at least one cattle breed from the past has just made a dramatic return to prominence, witnessed by my own eyes. For a couple of days I had six Beef Shorthorn bulls under my charge, a breed from yesteryear that has spent at least a couple of decades on the endangered rare-breed list. I have to say what delightful creatures they were too. Kind natured and full of natural flesh, the size and structure of this breed has been greatly improved over the past five years and it is now back in hot demand. A packed ringside of buyers squabbled over each other to get their bids in and the six beasts sold to average a whopping £6000 each, at least treble what they were worth half a decade ago. Isn’t it odd how everything goes around in cycles? There must be a moral in this somewhere? Whatever will be making a revival next? Common sense perhaps? Or even, (heaven forbid) common courtesy.
       During our absence, we received a few messages to say that the bad weather in Eastern Europe had now reached our home in France, depositing 6 inches of snow around the place and then freezing over. Not being used to having this stuff around, the locals were unable to cope as roads and airports were blocked due to lack of snow clearing equipment. Friends reported that they were unable to get out of their homes and if it continued for much longer they would be forced to start eating each other. Our few sheep, including the aforementioned Daisy, would have been stranded were it not for a gallant neighbour who braved the journey with emergency rations for them in his 4x4 for a few days. I thank him most gratefully, as do many of Daisy’s internet fan-club. We returned home a few days ago to find the mains water frozen up somewhere underground and have no idea when it will thaw. As I write, it is -16 outside and we are making soup from bottled water while burning the remains of our furniture on the log burner in an attempt to stay alive.
Isn’t it strange how only last month I reported that we had roses flowering, buds on the shrubs and mosquitoes. As always, that old mantra prevails: Be careful what you wish for.