Alison May

Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)

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This week I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The ability of Amazon to capture books in their magic butterfly nets and trap the words inside their lovely Kindles means that writers have a realistic alternative to wading through the months of submission and rejection (a process which, almost invariably, ends up with them having nothing published, but having contributed considerably to the coffers of the nice people at Rymans who sell the Big Envelopes). More and more writers are thinking why bother? And there are good reasons for feeling that way. The perception is that mainstream publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. Publishers are prepared to spend money on books by posh girls with famous sisters and even more famous bottoms, but not so happy to risk an outlay on a new novel by an untried writer.

If your book doesn’t fit easily into a neat marketing box, there’s even more encouragement to go it alone. Across web forums, writer’s conferences and writing courses, new writers are repeatedly told that they must be able to describe their book in a single sentence. To attract the capricious attentions of a mainstream publisher you have to have that instant-appeal marketing hook.

I’ve also been told, by an editor for a major publisher, that she expects writers to be able to explain what genre their book fits into and where it would sit in the market. That is just one person’s view, but a person who should know of what she speaks. So, if you’re writing a sort-of literary rom-com based on Shakespeare but with added maths, for example, you might decide that it’s easier to sell your novel directly to readers than to jump through that particular hoop. It’s a problem a lot of writers face – two others describe their own responses to this particular publishing headache here and here.

The economics of self-publishing, at least in e-book form, are also looking increasingly enticing for writers. Advances from publishers for new writers tend towards the modest. Publishing directly to Kindle through Amazon gives you a much bigger share of the cover price. In principle, it’s perfectly possible to make more income from e-publishing a book independently and selling fewer copies at a lower price, than if you published through a traditional publisher.

Despite having made a stunningly convincing arguement in favour of self-publishing, I still don’t wanna. In traditional “Alison does like a numbered list” style, here’s why:

1. It’s possible to make better money, but possible is not the same as easy.

I’m a totally unknown writer, and I’d be publishing without any marketing support behind me. Now there’s stuff I could do to promote a book at very little cost. I can tweet. I can blog. I can bully close personal friends into buying it. I reckon that between this blog, Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned real-life (you know where your parents and the old people live), I can put information out directly to somewhere in the region of 1000 people. Now, they won’t all buy the book. 1% of those people buying it would be 10 people. 10%, which is probably ambitious, would be 100 sales. That’s charming, but several orders of magnitude below what you need to get a book to the tipping point where word of mouth sends it on its way.

So I’d try other stuff: getting reviews from friendly blogs, encouraging Amazon reviews, making myself a proper glossy website, making myself a lovely shiny Amazon author page, trying to get some local press coverage – realistically I’d have to do a lot of that if I had an agent and mainstream publisher too, but I wouldn’t be doing it entirely on my own. And, at the risk of sounding overly focussed on the money, I’d be doing it while eating marmitey-toast paid for out of my advance.

2. There’s no such thing as a free-to-publish (and good and successful) book

So marketing is one problem. What about the actual novel itself? I could write the book, edit the book, draw myself a lovely little cover in Paint, and stick it up on Amazon. The problem there is that what I’d have published probably wouldn’t be a very good book.

To get a book  to publishable quality involves a bit of cost. I’d definitely want a professional cover design. I’d probably want the book professionally edited. That’s expensive. Even non-commercial critiquing services (like the RNA‘s fabulous New Writer’s Scheme of which I’m a very proud member) aren’t free. To self-publish a properly finished, professional-looking book, even as an e-book only venture, involves some investment, and, unless my numbers come up (which would involve me buying a lottery ticket, which I don’t because I, y’know, have a basic understanding of probability) I’m not really in a position to fork out that money.

3. Good enough isn’t good enough (for me)

Without the costs described above, particularly professional editing, would I be confident that my novel was good enough to put out there? Writers develop – I definitely hope to be a better writer in the future than I am now. The book I’d be e-publishing at the moment is my first completed novel. That inevitably means that I’ll look back on it in the future and see lots of things that could be improved, but I don’t want to look back and wish it had never been published. It might be a novel that I’d be proud of on the day I sent it out into the world, but would I still be proud in two or three years time?

Part of this is about my personality. I’m a perfectionist. I have high standards – that’s part of the reason that I’m good in my regular money-earning job as a trainer. I have high expectations of students, and generally find that if you set a bar just above what people think they are capable of, they will exceed their own expectations to achieve it. It also means I set high standards for my own work, and I do still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a validation that I’ve achieved a particular standard. It’s would be a massive shiny gold star on the star chart inside my head. Perhaps the fact that that’s important to me is a weakness. Perhaps it’s just a view that’s getting out of date, but in my gut, it’s still how I feel.

So that’s why I won’t be self-publishing my first novel, and am, instead, about to embark on the long tortuous journey to repeated rejection. I applaud, wholeheartedly, all those people who are braver than I, and are going it alone, and I’d love to get your comments on the self-publishing quandary. I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s decided against, and from anyone else who thinks anything at all really about things. Comment away! And why not subscribe or follow the blog while you’re here? Good-o.

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Everybody’s talking about… Bolivian migrant cats (coming over here stealing our mice).

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A political spat broke out this week between Home Secretary, Teresa May and Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, of the sort that traditionally crop up between members of opposing political parties. In her party conference speech, May cited a case of a Bolivian man who successfully appealed against his planned deportation, apparently, on the grounds that he owned a cat in the UK, as evidence of the negative effects of the Human Rights Act. Clarke quickly took issue with this account, as did the solicitor who represented the individual in question.

There are problems with May’s interpretation of events, and they are twofold. Firstly, the cat was never central to the man’s right to stay in the UK, and, secondly, neither was the Human Rights Act. The decision to allow the man to stay in the UK was based on the Home Office’s own policy, not on any wider human rights legislation.

Now I could expend many paragraphs here explaining why the Human Rights Act is actually on balance a jolly good thing, and how if it does force judges to act in a slightly counter-intuitive way in some cases then that’s sort of the point. But you are intelligent people and you have access to the whole interweb and plenty of people have spent many valuable words discussing that very point on other cul-de-sacs off of the modern Information Superhighway. You have Google – you know what to do if you want to read about that.

I’m more interested, today, in the political rhetoric that leads to these sorts of Westminster playground scraps. Politicians from all over the spectrum have form in this area. Back in 1992 Labour produced a Party Election Broadcast designed to attack the Tories record on the NHS, by comparing the treatment of two patients with ear disorders in NHS and private care. It quickly came out that the broadcast had been based on the case of a specific child, and what became known as the War of Jennifer’s Ear broke out. The child’s grandfather was a Tory supporter and provided information about the case to the Conservative Party, who used it to suggest the Labour had distorted the facts of the case of political gain. Then Robin Cook and Virginia Bottomley (Gosh, was she really 20 years ago? Now I feel old) hit each other with big sticks for a bit until it was time to go home for tea. Or something to that effect.

In 2002, the case of the elderly Rose Addis became another massive political storm in a tiny wee espresso cup, when allegations were made, initially by her family, and later by Conservative MPs, about her treatment in an NHS hospital. That particular spat ended up with statements being issued by politicians, and by family members, and staff of the hospital involved. Mrs Addis was accused of being unco-operative with staff. The hospital were accused of providing inadequate care. It all got very “He said..” “She said…” and it remains all but impossible to sort the facts from the narrative ten years on.

And here’s the problem. Politicians know, as do advertisers, public relations experts and creative writing teachers, that people like stories. We respond to narrative, to characters, to goodies and baddies, much more intensely than we respond to data and graphs and detailed factual information.

So a politician trying to make a point wants to tell us a story, not deliver a lecture. And to a degree, that’s ok. Part of the politician’s job is to persuade us that they are right about what the problems are and that their solutions to those problems are the best available. And, like their readers and viewers, media outlets like a story too. They like a narrrative and a character, because they know that will interest their audience much more than a data table. But anecdote isn’t evidence, and individual stories are open to interpretation. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s suspicious immigrant is another’s desperate asylum seeker.

Even those closest to an individual, especially those closest to an individual, will have their own views on a situation. So Jennifer’s grandfather clearly didn’t believe that her treatment reflected badly on the then Tory government. Other members of her family, including those who initially wrote to MP Robin Cook about the case, apparently did. Once something becomes a story, the storyteller decides how to tell it. They decide who the hero is. They decide who should be the villain. Stories aren’t based on facts. They’re based on narrative and character, and those are all created in the telling.  

So telling stories is a great way to engage people, to inspire and to persuade. But it’s not a great way to make public policy. Facts are too easily distorted, accidentally mislaid or purposefully obscured. Evidence, not narrative, should be at the centre of policy making, and evidence means data, information from a wide range of sources, carefully analysed and interpreted, not one example which may or may not be typical, and may or may not be accurately told.

Happily, one of the joys of the modern Information Superhighway (how many times do you think I have to use that phrase to bring it back into regular parlance?) is that a lot of that data is out there and we can access it. The downside of that is that we can fall into information overload and end up with lots of data but no knowledge. So it’s cheering to know that there are some lovely interweb bunnies out there doing some of the sifting for us. I’m particularly fond of the following:

Channel 4’s factcheck blog: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/

NHS Behind the Headlines: http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx

Michael Blastland’s Go Figure column (BBC): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14748007

And so ends today’s thinking. If you like, you can of course subscribe either by email or via Networked Blogs. There are lovely links just over there to your right to help you. And you can comment too, just down there, using your clever typing fingers. Jolly good.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

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There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?

If I could be anyone, I’d be..

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In honour of (and blatant advertising for) the rather lovely Talli Roland’s new novel Watching Willow Watts being launched today, I’m hopping on the “If I could be anyone..” bandwagon. In the story Willow attracts public attention by impersonating Marilyn Monroe, so today bloggers all over the Interweb are considering who they would be if they could be anyone at all.

So who would I be? Well, the honest answer is, probably that I’d just be me. I live what is, all things considered, a pretty charmed life. But that’s boringly well-balanced as well as boringly boring, so putting that to one side, who would I like to have a go at being, just as an alternative? I’d like to pretend that this was a tricky choice and that I considered a wide range of beautiful, intelligent and worthy people, but I so didn’t. There was only ever one choice.

River Song.

Alex Kingston as River Song

River Song is just brilliant. She’s got that hair. She’s intelligent. She’s foxy. She’s fearless and she gets to snog the Doctor. What’s not to love?

And ok, so River is currently in prison for murder, but she is not the sort to let that get her down, so I don’t think we should either. I do know, just for the record, that River Song is a fictional character, but actually that just gives me more reasons to love her (and to love Steven Moffat for inventing her). She’s a independent-minded action heroine, who isn’t size 0 or aged about 17, and she’s on mainstream British TV. Again, if you put aside the murdering, she’s a top class gold starred role model for little girls everywhere. Yay River Song!

Ooooh… you remember all that gubbins about three paragraphs ago about how I could only think of one possible choice, well I’ve thought of someone else. All of a sudden this game is hard. Ok, I’m going to have to award a runners-up prize.

In a very close 2nd place… Elizabeth I!

Miranda Richardson as Queenie

Now I don’t mean actual Queen Elizabeth I. She was forever having to worry about cousins plotting against her and Spaniards trying to invade. That all sounds a bit of a bother. I mean Queenie as played by Miranda Richardson in Blackadder series 2. The screwing up of her face if she thought she might not get her own way. The “Off with his head” in the tone of a sulky toddler. The occasional bursts of random flirtaciousness. I think I might pretty much be modelling my personality on Queenie. I find it very disheartening that I’m hardly ever allowed to have anyone executed.

So that’s who I’d be. And now I’m away to fret slightly about why I don’t idolise any real people. Why don’t you hop over here and see about downloading lovely Talli’s lovely book?

What I read on my holidays…

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Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.

What I learnt on my holidays

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For my holidays I went to Switzerland. And in good, back to school, spirit I have written something about it. Here are the things I learnt on my holidays.

1. Bears can climb trees.

I saw one do it. Here: http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/index.php?id=info&L=0  I also learnt that it is a bit unnerving to just be having a gentle stroll along the river bank, glance to your side and think, “Oh. Bears.”

2. If you are having heart-shaped balloons at your wedding, you should look at them from the top, just to be sure they don’t look like boobies.

The wedding party we saw on our last day in Switzerland had failed to do this. They had nipple balloons. How we laughed.

3. Western Europeans are totally over the whole bomb scare thing. Australians still find them quite exciting.

At Gare du Nord station, waiting to board the Eurostar back to the good ol’ UK, we were rudely interrupted by an announcement instructing us to evacuate the area due to a security alert. We should do this, the announcement said, in line with instructions from the station staff. The 300 or so people in the waiting area glanced around for some station staff to instruct us, saw none, and went back to reading their books. About ten minutes later the same announcement repeated. This time, a few people stood up, clearly feeling that they at least ought to show willing. Some station staff appeared, milled around a bit, and made no attempt to evacuate us. The people who’d stood up, now feeling they had foolishly overreacted to the risk of being blown limb from limb, tried to look as though they’d wanted to stand up anyway. Really, honestly, they were just stretching their legs. They sat down again. We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed, and then a medium-sized bang was heard from another part of the station. Not a “the whole place has blown up, run for your lives” bang, but not a “Oh dear, Jean Claude’s dropped another plate” sort of bang either. A medium bang. A controlled explosion sort of bang, you might say. This, at last, got a reaction from the waiting hoard. Several people looked around. A few went, “Oooh.” We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed and we were allowed to board our train.

On the train, we were seated across the aisle from a group of Australians, who were “doing Europe.” They seemed very pleased with the whole incident, and talked enthusiastically about how they must email home and tell everyone how they had survived a real European bomb scare. So there you go, slight risk of terrorism is apparently considered part of the modern authentic European tourist experience. Oh dear.

4. Swiss trains really do run on time.

And the station clocks pause slightly at the top of the minute. The second hand goes all the way around in about 57 seconds, pauses slightly at the top of the hour, before the minute hand clicks on and the second hand resumes it’s journey. You can watch the clock. See the minute hand click around. You then just have time to say, “We should be going now,” before the train pulls away. It’s very impressive.

5. Switzerland really is excruciatingly expensive.

People told me this before we went. It’s one of the things everyone knows about Switerland. Mountains, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, very expensive. Basically the Swiss are rich. Their GDP is around $67000 per capita. The UK’s is around $35000 per capita. So there’s an awful lot more money floating around. This is a bit of a pain from a tourist point of view. You  have two choices. Either you don’t eat and only do free activities. Or you absolutely cane your credit cards and decide to worry about it later. Hmmm… yeah… about that… *shuffles feet a bit* There might need to be a tiny bit of belt tightening round these parts over the next couple of months.

So that’s what I learnt on my holidays. Try to only overspend within numbers the human brain can count up to, and look out for bears.

Come back for tomorrow for “What I read on my holidays…”

Everybody’s talking about… tabloid phone hacking

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So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.

Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.

But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.

Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?

That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police.  And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.

The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.

The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.

The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.

How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.

Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.