books

Crowdfunding hitches: the skint and the tight

Crowdfunding’s been around for a while in its modern form, and even Victorian novels were sometimes funded by pre-orders, but publishers who use crowdfunding to support their new books are having a surge in popularity (or publicity) at the moment. Dead Ink and Unbound each had a few books on the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize longlist earlier this summer, for instance, and I know that 3 of Cups Press are funding their first anthology at the moment via Kickstarter. It feels like half the people I follow on Twitter have crowdfunded novels or short story collections either already out or in the pipeline.

Naturally enough, I went to pledge for one of these books this week on Unbound and got a shock at the prices. First off, note that while the author isn’t someone I’ve met, we have a few mutual friends/acquaintances (in real life, not just online) so I’m naturally inclined to do him a good turn. Secondly, having read the blurb it’s a novel I’d choose to borrow if I ran across it in the library, so from purely selfish reasons (getting hold of a book I want to read) I want it to get published. Unfortunately it looks like the cheapest option is £10 for an ebook (which I didn’t want), £15 plus postage for the paperback, with (as far as I could see) no option to chip in a smaller amount as a simple donation. It stopped me from pledging, and I bet it stops others as well. There needs to be a lower threshold.

Now, before we go any further I’ll do my usual disclaimer about supporting the right of authors, proofreaders, editors and all the rest to reasonable remuneration for their time and effort. However, that £15 seems a bit steep compared to £7.99 or £8.99 for a full-price paperback, and we all know that in reality via Waterstones 3 for 2 offers, Amazon’s undercutting or supermarket bestsellers, many paperbacks aren’t even purchased at full price. Even if someone’s used to buying full-price new books, you’ve still got to give them an incentive to buy yours rather than the new one from the big name, the prizewinner, or their favourite author. So what’s the incentive to pay double here? Well, apart from the warm glow at supporting an independent publisher or encouraging an author, you get your name in the book. For higher pledges of course you get extras, special editions, original artwork, meet the author, that kind of thing, which seems fair enough. I’m not bothered about getting my name in a book though, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy the paperback at normal paperback sort of prices. Or just donate a small amount, get nothing but the warm glow in return, and maybe buy the book later once it’s out and I’ve got more spare cash.

Once I’d thought about it a bit I wondered if this is another instance of the long-running ‘privileged backgrounds in publishing’ saga (see also my recent posts about the cost of writing competitions). Both Dead Ink and 3 of Cups Press happen to have slightly lower prices than Unbound for their ebooks and paperbacks, but crucially they both have donation options. If you can only spare a quid this week, you still get to feel like you contributed towards a publication that means something to you, even if you don’t get a copy of the book out of it. I was once chatting to a student environmentalist (accentless, bit snobby, apparently from a well-off background) who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t switch to eco-friendly brands as the prices were so similar and clearly it was the right thing to do – I remember trying to explain to this bemused lad that for many people the choice is not between Andrex and Nouvelle or Fairy Liquid and Ecover, it’s between the value brand and the eco version, and their budgets simply might not stretch that far even if they thought it was a good idea. As I confessed to Sam at Lounge Books on Twitter this morning, most of my reading material comes from the library, charity shops, or I get review copies. Before the reviewing it was mainly libraries and charity shops, and most of my family and friends are the same – for us £15 isn’t just usurping two novels we’d buy in the shops, it’s more like five on the expensive side from Oxfam or 30 from the charity shop near my parents. Crowdfunding publishers might be asking for a bigger investment from us than they think.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Things of mine you can now read

I have new flash fiction over at Visual Verse, where each month’s submissions are prompted by a picture. Mine is called A Splash of Unexpected Brightness, in which a depressed young artist does a nice thing for his friend and she doesn’t quite see it that way.

I also reviewed a book called Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, over at The Bookbag. It’s quite short and not much happens but it’s nice on atmosphere and detail and a snapshot of criss-crossing lives in a restaurant that’s about to close down. Remember, you can see all the books I’ve reviewed there by going to the reviewed by JY Saville page, so if you’ve got overlapping taste in books with me, you might find something there that interests you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

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As soon as I stopped looking for female-authored SF to review I read a cracking fantasy novel which would have counted. Not that I knew the author was a woman until I looked online to see if this was part of a series, and saw her referred to as Victoria. The same article also informed me that she’s American, which explains the sudden mention of ‘tight pants’ which jarred me out of the story for a moment…

This is the story of not just one London but four, one of them being our own eighteenth century version, which is a bit quiet on the magic front compared with the others. Kell is unusual in that he can travel in a carefully controlled way between three of the different Londons, as a kind of diplomatic courier. He’s from Red London, the one with the most fairytale kingdom feeling to it, but there’s also White London which is downright bloodthirsty and dangerous. Hang on – didn’t we say four Londons? As is the way of these things, there’s a London we don’t talk about, a London that collapsed under its own excesses so long ago it’s become a myth. Black London is real though, and it might not be as firmly sealed in the past as was generally believed.

It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but there is a strong female character, nicely complex, and a pretty-boy prince who I found kind of irritating but since I find plenty of real people irritating that didn’t disturb me too much. There’s tension, excitement, natty dressing, magic, and I didn’t once contemplate throwing the book across the room for crimes of mushiness or sentimentality.

Although this is the first in a series, it didn’t feel incomplete as some fantasy series novels do, rather it felt that there was scope for further adventures if we cared to know about them. I liked the world and the main characters so I think I’ll be going back for more via A Gathering of Shadows.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

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Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.

Week 17: involving many books

Just after last week’s update I won a Twitter fiction competition, and today my parcel of prizes arrived. There’s still something so exciting about getting things (particularly books) through the post.

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Unfortunately (and indeed, shockingly) I wasn’t quite the comedic genius I assumed, last week, and Newsjack didn’t use either of my sketches or any of my one-liners. However, I haven’t let it put me off and I’ve sent in two more sketches today and am mulling over one-liners for tomorrow’s deadline. This week’s episode is the last in the series so it’s my last chance for a while. I am emboldened enough to consider entering the Sketch in the City competition for writers in the north though, so something good has come of this.

Speaking of the north (as I so often do), check back here in a few days for a link to an article I wrote about taking my inspiration from the northern landscape, history and people (which of course includes my home and family). I managed to get another chapter or so of the semi-rural fantasy novel written this week, which is set all across the north of England. I’m enjoying all the background reading I’m doing for that, The Marches by Rory Stewart being the most recent (sh, don’t tell anyone I’m reading books by Tory MPs). The Library of Mum and Dad furnished me this weekend with a local history book belonging to my 2xgreat-grandfather, however, and I’m looking forward to delving into that soon.

What was read where last year?

Libraries. Data. Data on library books. You know I can’t resist. I was excited (yes, really) to find the top 100 most borrowed books in UK libraries 2015/16. A couple of years ago I wrote about the top 10 most borrowed books at Leeds Libraries and wondered whether there was much variation in different areas, so imagine my delight when I saw the regional breakdowns.

Since they’re the places where me and my immediate family use libraries, I immediately delved into the lists for the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and it looks like my earlier musings may have had some foundation. The Yorkshire list has way more instances of Barnsley author Milly Johnson’s books (3 in the top 10) than the national list, where she first appears at number 12. In the North East her most borrowed book is at number 72.

Interestingly, the UK number 1, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, is at number 3 in the North East and number 7 in Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, seventh most borrowed book in the UK, is at number 42 in the North East and isn’t in the top 100 at all in Yorkshire. Both of those books seemed to be constant in the books pages (and beyond) of national newspapers, discussed on arts programmes and the like. Did everyone up here buy the books instead of borrowing them, or are we more resistant to hype, or does the media frenzy only ever reflect metropolitan tastes? Discuss.

I haven’t read either of them, in case you wondered, but nor have I read any Lee Child or Milly Johnson. In fact you have to go down to number 13 on the Yorkshire borrowing chart to find an author I’ve read (Michael Connelly) and the only book of his I have read, I wasn’t that keen on. It turns out I haven’t read a single book on the Yorkshire list, the North East list, or the whole UK list. How unlike me to have minority tastes.