Piracy, pricing and the pernicious effects of victim-less crimes

Piracy, pricing and the pernicious effects of victim-less crimes

Piracy is not Johnny Depp running around in kohl and dreadlocks, pretending to be Jack Sparrow. Piracy is a terrifying reality on the seas to this day but that’s not the type of piracy I’m wanting to raise awareness of. The type of piracy I mean is a so-called victim-less crime.
Piracy in the creative industry is the stealing of content without the consent of the creator. Every DVD starts with an anti-piracy notice; most you cannot even fast forward through. But I’ve heard people say it’s not a crime and that an artist ought to be flattered that someone has thought their content worthy of lifting. I suspect that most reading this will be on the side of the angels and I may be ranting simply to relieve my feelings. I don’t know if any of my work has been pirated; I don’t want to look, really. Cease and desist notices seem to have limited effects and to be honest, they’re a hydra – a many-headed beast that grows ever more heads each time one is cut off. It’s the mentality that sends people to pirate sites that needs addressing as much as anything; the implementation of DRM has done nothing to reduce piracy and much to inconvenience genuine users.
I had a friend who had in the past committed what he considered victim-less crimes of eating at expensive restaurants and then sauntering off without paying. The argument was that it was something that restaurants factored into their costs and it was therefore not really a problem. The same friend also used to steal things like pillows from hotels, again using the argument that such losses were covered by insurance, and that didn’t everyone do it? Excuse me while I bang my head on a brick wall for a while in frustration. Stupid and immoral doesn’t even cover the half of it!
Shops inevitably lose a significant proportion of their good via shop-lifting and the losses are adjusted by raising the prices of the goods. Smaller shops go out of business as a result of the rise in insurance premiums, the cost of replacing stolen goods and because of the sheer misery of being robbed constantly. It’s easy to forget that shops are not always run by face-less business moguls but actual human beings with feelings.
It’s the same for books. Even when it’s a big name author who is being pirated, they lose out. For independent authors, it’s even more striking. You might argue that writers write for the love of it and not for money, but you know what? It’s possible we do it for both. We all have bills to pay. I’ve seen the argument that books are priced so high that people cannot afford to buy them. Unlike food, books are not an actual necessity of life, though life without books would be dull and grim. Books are always freely available, either via libraries (you can actually request particular books to be ordered from your library) or from the vast array of books that are no longer subject to copyright and have been made available by such fabulous initiatives as the Gutenberg project. These are the only free books I get now, ones by authors who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil.
If it is price that puts people off buying a book, then I do not understand why quite so many bought, for example, J.K Rowling’s newest offerings when they were initially almost £12 for the e-book version. I know she has millions of fans, but honestly, £12 for an e-book? That’s prohibitively expensive. I’m still looking on the shelves of second-hand bookshops for copies of her detective novel. I appreciate that there’s few who will take a punt on an unknown author if the price tag is above a certain amount but it’s depressing to see that price is trotted out as a reason for not even trying. With Kindle, you get a decent chunk of sample for free to see if you like the style. I’ve already written about why I think free is a problem but there are a few things I would like to suggest in relation to free books. If you pick up a free book, resolve to actually read it. I’ve stopped getting free books for this reason; they are sitting on my Kindle, unread. The psychology of this is complex but basically paying for something gives it value and time is our most valuable commodity. If a book is free and is the first in a series, consider paying for the next instalment if you enjoyed the free book. Consider writing a review for free books; it’s one of the reasons authors make a book free, in the hope that reviews may come. Independent authors often have zero budget for advertising and reviews can be very helpful.
I said earlier than while writers write for pleasure, being paid for it is important. There comes a point when many authors actually stop putting books out, because the sense of futility can become overwhelming. I’ve heard of authors being messaged by people asking to be informed when the next book is going to be free. I cannot imagine anything more inducing of despair than such a message. It says, I like your books but you won’t catch me paying for them. There are shelves on Goodreads that in essence say the same: books I want when they are up for free (or so I am told. I don’t and won’t use Goodreads because it scares me).
One other thing. Pirate sites for books often provide books that are poorly formatted, incomplete and can be laden with viruses. Karma’s only a bitch if you are.

“She’s only after the attention!”

“She’s only after the attention!”

I bought a new chair a few weeks ago.

Bravo, you might say and then look puzzled. A new chair? Yes. Very nice. But why are you telling us about it?

Bear with me a moment. It’s a chair I’ve wanted to buy for about ten years but we never had anywhere to put it so it was never bought. It’s that classic design from Ikea, rejoicing in the delightful name Poang. You might know it; it also has a matching footstool. Neither are expensive and so I put one in our trolley on our last Ikea visit.

Poang armchair

Poang armchair

Poang armchair

When you sit in it, this chair seems to be tailored to fit your contours perfectly. Put your feet up and it’s even better. But the slightest movement results in a gentle, soothing rocking motion that is supremely relaxing as long as you’re not prone to sea-sickness. Once the chair was assembled, I sat in it and found myself rocking automatically, and I pulled a blanket over me and felt safe. The phrase “self-soothing” sprang to mind. Babies and small children are difficult sometimes to persuade that bed and sleep are good things, and part of what parents are expected to teach them is a process of self-soothing whereby the children can just go to bed and get themselves off to sleep without the endless round of rocking, cuddling, holding, bottle(or breast), music and so on. It’s part of the process of encouraging our off-spring to be independent beings who don’t need us for their security and sense of safety and comfort.

What bothers me is that it seems to begin at birth. No sooner is the babe out of the womb than we’re encouraged to shove them in a cot or pram and expect the poor little things to cope with it. Imagine: your whole existence up till this point, you have been cocooned and held in warmth and have your every (albeit basic) needs met without having to seek it. Now you’re out in a world where you have to scream to be fed and held, and nothing feels right. You’ve never been alone before. No wonder babies scream so much.

As parents (if you’ve been lucky enough to have kids, that is) you have little or no preparation for this, and if you are like me, you have no one around you to advise except mid-wives, health visitors, and a few friends in the same boat, trying to figure it out and get sufficient sleep. You’re often bombarded by conflicting advice from relatives and from books and TV and websites(when mine was born, the internet per se did not exist) and the most common advice is that you bend the infant to your will, to your way of living. Don’t give in to this miniature tyrant who bosses you around and makes you do their bidding, is the general opinion, and you are told you will “spoil” your baby if you do.

I remember a close friend who had a daughter a bit older than mine, being told by another young mum that the child who was having a tantrum was “only doing it for attention.” My wise friend retorted coolly, “Then I had better give her some attention.”

Fast forward to the present day.

With the internet, cries for attention pepper the time-lines of Twitter, the pages of Facebook and are the staple of blogging. Indeed, to some, blogging itself is regarded as the most vile of attention seeking. I recall TV presenter Andrew Marr saying something of the sort.

A baby that does not have its emotional needs met in infancy usually is damaged by the experience. Bodies can thrive and grow but the spirit can be stunted and scarred by lack of attention. It’s a fundamental human need to be of value & importance to those around us, and when it is lacking, however much notional love is present in a family, there remains a void in the centre of a person’s soul.

I belong to the generation whose mothers were told to feed Baby and put them in the garden in their pram to watch washing blowing on the line and ignore their cries until it is time for the next feed. A friend of my mother’s used to put the pram at the bottom of the orchard, a considerable distance from the house, so she could not hear the baby crying. I was myself kidnapped as a ten day old baby. Obviously I don’t remember it but I do sometimes feel sure that the impact on me at the time has resonance to this day. My generation were not cuddled and coddled and the worst thing you could be as a child was an “attention seeker”, especially if you were a girl. The truth is that there’s a good chance that much of what is going hopelessly wrong with the Western world has its roots in children who grew up craving attention but seldom getting it in ways that fed the soul. To learn to self-soothe is still encouraged by popular psychology that dictates that no one cane truly help you except yourself. I disagree. We are a tribal people whether we accept it or not; we are not built to be totally emotionally and physically isolated. John Donne’s famous words, No man is an island, are true to this day.

So the next time you see someone attention-seeking, whether online or in “real life”, perhaps it is worth considering why they might be behaving this way and what deep need is being exhibited. Compassion for the self and for others might well be the best first step towards healing generations of people damaged by the myths of strength and independence that have filled our national identities and characters and have damaged the souls of so many.

Kindness and compassion. It’s a good place to start.

Why loving books is not the same as loving stories

Why loving books is not the same as loving stories

On a couple of occasions recently while watching documentaries there have been shots of various libraries from around the world and I have emitted involuntary noises of serious appreciation more suited to the sighing of eye candy of some sort. One of them was actually a library in Russia. Vast terraces of shelves of books, stretching into the distance, complete with ladders to reach the higher ones, and neat desks complete with lamps with poison-green glass shades. For one millisecond I could smell the wonderful vanilla aroma of old books mingled with the more animalic tones of the leather binding, and feel the pent-up expectant hush that comes with such places and the soft indoor breeze caused by the tuning of hundreds of heavy pages of thick cream paper.

That’s what I call a proper library. Shoot me if you like but I don’t like modern accessible libraries with their noisy children’s corners (that is to say, noisy areas for children rather than corners for children who make a lot of noise, though the two are pretty much synonymous) and colourful displays and internet desks. I haven’t even got round to joining the library here, only two doors away from my own front door because it’s that kind of library. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I know all the arguments in favour of making libraries places where people can chat and children can discover the wonder of books. It’s just not for me. I’m not comfortable with it in the same way I’m deeply uncomfortable with people conversing in normal voices about everyday topics in the period before a church service starts (after the service is fine. If I ever go these days, I bow my head and stay silent and apparently in prayer to avoid this sort of conversation.)

I LOVE books. I always have done. I was gutted when before moving to the coast in 2006, among the many physical things that were given away, a large number of books had to go or we had no chance of fitting into our new but MUCH smaller house. I own books I will never be able to read (though I did give my Hebrew Bible to a friend who reads the language) and I am haunted by inner visions of mysterious, heavy, leather bound books that hold secrets and wonders. It’s why, despite having a digital copy of Jung’s Red Book, I do one day want to own a real physical copy. The digital pictures have merely whetted my desire.

A book is an object of great beauty and it holds something that is beyond the story is turns out to contain. Books have themselves become a kind of archetype, something representing knowledge, wisdom, mystery and wonder, a vessel for enlightenment. I began some months back to write a small journal of my personal grail quest. I have painted a few pictures in it; holding it, with most of its pages still untouched, I am aware of the potential of the words I have written and those I have yet to find. There is something intrinsically HOLY about books. The notion of burning books makes me sick; throwing a book away will enrage me. I got very sharp with a student a few years ago as we stood at the Boreham Interchange services; I’d watched him read a book on the coach for several trips, and that day I saw him stand reading, finish the last page, shrug and proceed to THROW IT IN THE BIN. I went mildly ballistic and rescued the book. I have it still, regardless of the fact that my German is unlikely ever to be proficient enough to tackle it.

There is no such thing as a bad book. There are many bad stories, but the medium in which they are offered ought not to be tainted by this. In my opinion FSOG ought never have been printed; it’s now the volume that charity shops have ended up with stockpiles of. In its digital form it did not carry the same weight of existence as it does in paperback form, and now it seems that the idea of a “great book” is muddled up with great (ie: HUGE) sales, and the sheer numbers FSOG sold sets a measure all other books are somehow expected to aim at.

The argument between those who have embraced the digital era of the e-book and those who believe that it’s not a book unless it’s paper and ink is getting tired but there’s people like me who are happy that both are available. I love books but I also love stories. I love being able to hit “one click” and know that in seconds I will have a new story to enjoy. Some I then buy a hard copy of, either to give or to add to my own small library. Some stories are essentially disposable, read once and forget. In fact, the vast majority of beach-read blockbusters are like this, and I have been able in recent years to part with many(well, a few, anyway) of these indenti-kit novels.

But there’s always a huge part of me that is the girl who aged eighteen was so overawed that she was only able to stand inside the old British Library for a few seconds before the power of the books made her run away quivering ever so slightly. It’s that part of me that despite being a relative nobody in the world of books, I try to get my stories into book form, that paper-and-ink book baby, because the solid reality of a book you can cuddle* has a level to it that e-books can’t match, no matter how many are ever sold.

* Yes, I cuddle books. Doesn’t everyone?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

I’ve seen a good deal lately about free books. If you buy e-books, you’ll probably have gathered a few freebies. Amazon allows its Select programme authors to make their books free for five days out of the ninety day exclusive period. Many authors believe that the exposure having a book available for free brings in sales later, especially if the book charts in one of the best-seller categories that run side by side, paid alongside free. When the opportunity to “sell” your book at the free option first came around, a lot of authors found that their books soared to the top of categories as people in their thousands downloaded it. As time went on, the numbers downloading became lower and the paid sales that came on the back of it dropped even lower too.

Today I came across Erika M Szabo’s blog post explaining how she has people messaging her and asking her when her books would be free  http://lovetotalkalot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/free-book.html I’m certain her experience is far from unusual. It would seem that the plethora of books offered for free has meant that a lot of readers now expect books for nothing.

Some time ago I stopped downloading free books, just because they were free. In fact, I stopped doing it within a few months of getting my Kindle. Most of the ones I nabbed remain unread, lost somewhere in the hinterlands of my device. I realised that the books that got put into the folder named Freebies seldom came out again. I have occasionally picked up a book that’s been offered free, but it’s generally ones I might well have bought. Currently I am reading a non fiction book about food in the books of Jane Austen. I’ll probably write a review when I finish it, as a thank you.

I’m sure if people thought about it properly they would understand that while authors do want their books to be read, they don’t really want to give them away. There’s something more complicated going on, something subtle and easy to miss. Giving away books can be part of a strategy to gain more readers: either on the off chance that those who grab it when it’s free will read it (and even better, write a review), or because the book has been given as an ARC (Advance Review Copy) in exchange for an honest review later. I know from other writers than ARCs often bring in poor returns; many readers never get round to writing the promised review. I don’t generally accept ARCs myself either because the time factor is such that if it’s a book I want to read in the first place, I prefer to buy it because that gives it greater weight in the sliding scale of what I an afford to spend time on. In my mind, a book I have bought (exchanged money for) is likely to be read far sooner than one that I have been given in the hope that I will review it. If I have paid money for a book, too, I feel that the basic exchange of energies is in balance. Once I have read that book, depending on how much I have enjoyed it, there is then a possibility that I feel the balance has been upset again. A book I have adored creates in me the desire to share it, to review it and to make up the deficit in energy. So a four quid book that I loved requires something more to settle the scales.

Of all the commodities today, for many of us, time is the most valuable. I’ve read scathing reviews of books that often refer to the time they have lost reading a book they didn’t enjoy, and often it’s only the fact that it was free or cheap that has redeemed it. But my time too is valuable. To write a book takes time and dedication and while you can argue that writers make that choice to use their time to write (and no one is holding a gun to their heads) I do believe that demanding unlimited free books is an obscenity. The motto of my faculty at university was Haec otia studia fovent which roughly translates as This leisure(wealth) fosters/favours study; one could use the same basic sentiment to declare that this leisure fosters creative works. Without the time taken out of other activities few books would get written. There are few authors I know who can write full time. Most of us have day jobs. We write for all sorts of reasons and while there’s some who write in the hope of making their fortune, I think most accept that very few succeed in that way.

My own books are the product of intense, focused periods of creative energy, with all the concomitant hours of extra work to polish and prepare them for public consumption. I have never made any of them free on Kindle and I probably won’t. However, I do happily give away copies to individuals and I have my own code for this. I don’t send out ARCs out before a book is published (but I may do something of the sort one day when I get all my ducks in a row) because I’d rather not create obligation in others. If a book has given enjoyment that is worthy of the very reasonable price, then I think that’s all square. The reviews that come in give me great pleasure and I’m deeply grateful for them.

Every free book has been the product of a lot of work and hope too. It’s greedy to gobble them all up and demand more of the same without offering something in return. An author cannot keep on churning out more and more of the same product endlessly without something going back to feed them, and for readers to see authors as mere providers of their favourite mental snacks will create even greater imbalance. Authors will get discouraged and they will give up. Many already have.

If you enjoy reading, whatever your preferred genres, remember that exchange of energy, especially if you “buy” free books. Make time to review the ones you enjoyed, or buy a book by the same author if you liked their style, let others know about books they may also enjoy. 

The REAL function of reviews (and why they really do still matter)

The REAL function of reviews (and why they really do still matter)

In days gone by, book reviews were the province of the professional, published in broadsheet newspapers, Sunday supplements and other publications. If a critic didn’t like a book, this was a big deal and usually meant that sales of said book became unstable: some folks would buy a book just because of a bad review and others who might otherwise have had a punt at it, avoided it.

Then everything changed. Not only did Amazon allow reviews, now it even chases you up some time after purchase asking what you thought. Blogs and book review websites give their thoughts on books. Everyone, it seems, is allowed to be a critic now.

Now while many have criticised Amazon for all sorts of things (and rightly so) the company has given a very valuable facility to writers who by now might be running out of bottom drawers to store rejected manuscripts in: a place to publish at minimal or even no cost. It’s also given readers the chance to express their thoughts on favourite and not so favourite and even hated books.

It’s been a volatile combination. A few years back, someone (who? We may never know) figured out that there was a winning combination to be had from reviews. If a book garnered X amount of reviews, then it triggered an automatic promotion of the book from Amazon. It meant that emails landed in the in-boxes of anyone who’d bought something even vaguely similar, alerting them to a book they may like. If your book garnered some more, the promotion stepped up a notch. So, the race was on to reach the magic numbers of reviews and that’s when things went pear-shaped. Authors started to buy reviews, or created sock puppet accounts to review their own books, and brow beat members of their family and friends to review their books. They also stooped to even lower tricks like writing one star reviews for the books of perceived rivals to lower their overall star average so that they became ineligible for a number of prestigious review sites. Flame wars broke out on message boards and discussion groups. Readers lost confidence in the impartiality of Amazon reviews, and became suspicious of books that had only five star reviews, believing (despite evidence to the contrary) that all must have been written by the author or the author’s friends and family. Amazon itself cracked down on some reviews, and began to declare that it was against their terms and conditions for authors to review other authors writing in the same genres, but failed to isolate and deal with the swathes of negative one star reviews instigated by disgruntled authors and their minions.

The review system was declared fatally flawed and I’ve heard people say they pay no attention to reviews any more. I’ve no idea if the algorithm that triggered extra promotion still exists, because I am still short of the magic number (or the one I last heard of) and they’ve probably moved the goal posts anyway!

So, if readers don’t really read or take heed of reviews, what’s the point of them? Why do so many authors ask for them, send out ARC to folks so that within hours or days of publication, there are reviews brightening the page?

It’s complicated. We’re tribal animals, us humans, and we’re not all of us pioneers. It’s a rare person who’ll venture precious cash on something totally untried. Myself, if the blurb has interested me (quite rare now) I tend to glance at reviews (and I do look at one star reviews too), download a sample and go from there. If I like what I read, I will probably buy regardless of what negative reviews say. (As an exercise, I challenge you to look up one of your very favourite books on Amazon and read the one star reviews. That puts it all into perspective. I have a single one star review that upset me at the time but which now I treasure.)

So if reviews are not really for potential readers, who are they for?

They’re about a kind of dialogue that was never possible before the internet. The dialogue between author and reader. Yes, letters were written, but the very public nature of reviews means that anyone can read them. This is why it’s very bad practise for an author to answer reviews, especially negative ones, without a great deal of thought, if at all.

Being a writer can be intensely lonely. We build worlds in our heads and we let others into those worlds when we publish, but there’s a real anxiety that we didn’t do a good enough job. Do the readers see what I see? Do they feel what I feel about the characters? When a review pops up (or an email or letter for that matter) and it becomes clear that we succeeded in our aims, that brings the real joy.

Reading my own reviews has told me a lot of things. Here are a few:You can’t please everyone. Some folks love a happy ever after ending, some prefer things less neat. Some readers cannot cope with typos. (S&P needs a good sweep through for these; I am aware of it but finding the time to do it is harder than you’d think. I was rushed into publishing it, and had been assured it was ‘clean’. Lesson- be more discerning about so-called friends). Some people seek to find detective story twists in literary fiction and are disappointed they did not find any. People have their own ideas of where a story should go, and can be unreasonably disappointed when it doesn’t go where they thought it should. In a story with multiple strands, readers all have their own favourites and preferences for where they would like it to go in a sequel(this makes sequels exceptionally hard to write). Readers become protective and loving towards certain characters, and become attached to them. Themes that affect one reader positively can push the buttons of another.

As a writer, hearing that a story that I lived and wept over has affected someone means I have done my job and done it well. In these days where the push is towards having mega best-sellers, which fly off the virtual and real shelves in their thousands every day, it’s easy to forget that there is a relationship going on, an unseen dialogue between the author and the reader. As a reader, I often want to tell the author what I liked or didn’t like, and why. In some books that have profoundly affected me, I have reviewed them so that my experience validates the book in some way for another reader. Experiencing it from either side means I understand very well how much it can mean to a writer to hear that their words helped another person. As a writer, reviews give me a reason to continue when self doubt and depression knock me down, when sales are poor and when it seems like the whole world wants to read the latest blockbuster by a famous writer and small fry like me don’t really exist. Reviews assure me that I have skills and that people I have never met appreciated those skills.

Writers can be fragile beings. Hemingway once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed,”. Reviews (well, good ones anyway) are the salve on the open wounds, that soothe and heal and give us strength to go on bleeding. 

Tampa, banned books and why I am happy to have missed that boat.

Tampa, banned books and why I am happy to have missed that boat.

A couple of months ago I was alerted to the probable publication of a novel that had as a central theme one that readers of my novel The Bet will recognise. The basic synopsis of Tampa goes something like this: high school teacher is fixated sexually on fourteen year old boys. The book has been described as the sickest book this summer, likened to Lolita and has already been banned by some Australian bookshops. I read a Guardian article about it and the comments were as revealing as the article; many were a version of “This is depraved, filthy and disgusting- where can I buy my copy?” It’s alleged that the author Alissa Nutting has even forbidden her Catholic parents from reading the book.

One of the things that was mentioned in the article is the double standards the book exposes. While a male teacher perving on fourteen year old girls is reviled (and rightly so) there is less obvious repugnance for the reverse. Indeed, reading through comments it seems that there is a fairly widespread notion that most boys at that age are a raging mass of hormones and would welcome such attention.

When the first scenes of The Bet began to form, I was horrified and upset by them. The character who is the victim of this sort of attention is extremely distressed by it, and it’s only much later in the novel that the reason for this is addressed. What happens to him, and what has already happened, scar him probably irretrievably. It’s likely that a normal life is going to evade him for a very long time.

I’m maybe going to be called a prude and perhaps I am but I am heartily sick of everything being sexualised to such an extent that new kicks, new thrills are being sought to tickle palates that have become jaded. I chose to leave much of the sexual encounters in this novel very much to the imagination of readers: the old adage of show don’t tell springs to mind. Sex was not the primary motivator within the book: power was. Power over another human being who is vulnerable to being manipulated into situations beyond their control or desire. Yes, this is fiction, but fiction and so-called real life are far more than kissing cousins. One influences the other, bound together like an eternal Mobius strip.

What I sought to do with my novel was to delve into the mind and soul of a character damaged almost irreparably by having been captured by circumstances that turned him into a sexual toy, an object, a slave even. I lead the reader deep into the tragedy of his life and then I lead him into a place where light begins to dawn.

People might think I am merely jealous of the commercial success of Tampa and there is a wistful part of me that sighs and feels sad that The Bet has not been a wildly successful novel, charting on the New York Times best sellers list. I would not want Tampa to be banned because I believe in the right for literature to be uncensored, and because banned books still sell. But I will be honest and say I hope that once the furore is over, the reviews good or bad are written, this is a book that will be forgotten. It has already failed to engage in the implicit double standards our society applies to sex with minors. It has failed to engage in anything other than titillation and a pandering to the literary machine that demands more extremes.

I’ve joked before now of writing an X rated version of The Bet but I can say now that I am glad this was no more than a joke. To fill a book with gratuitous sex just in the hopes of selling masses is not something I aim to do. So while Tampa has probably sold more via pre-orders than The Bet may EVER do, I am proud of my work and of a story that has touched a lot of people very deeply. As a writer, that’s probably one of the things that gives me the most reason to continue writing. 



Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

I’ve been fretting about writing this for some time. It’s churned and turned and roiled and boiled inside me for ages and I’m never going to get any peace if I don’t try and sort my thoughts into order.

The last two years have been a very interesting ride. In that time I have published three novels, two short story collections and a non fiction book of meditations. I’m not counting the eighteen months where Strangers and Pilgrims was available as a paperback, because I had little or nothing to do with that side of things. For me self publishing began when I put that novel onto Kindle. As self published authors go, I’m doing quite well, I guess. Still mid-list, which is what you can generally expect for the kind of vaguely literary fiction I write. I have books consistently in the top 100 for their category; I have some excellent reviews. And I’ve had some fun.

But the last six months or so something has begun niggling at me, and the niggles have become more than occasional discomfort and have begun to really cause me some distress.

It’s this: the constant pressure to do better.

I don’t mean write better. I like to think I work hard at that anyway. I mean, to sell better. I spend a lot of time on social media, and I follow links and I read articles and it’s making me ill.

The nub of it is that self-published writers still generally wish to be taken seriously, to be counted as the equals of those who have a contract with a legacy publisher, and to sell as well and to live the so-called writer lifestyle. To do so, there is endless discussions about what you must do to compete with the Big Guns. Professional covers, formatting, editing, proofreading, book trailers, book tours, signing tours, being on every available e-reader format, having a professional website (God forbid you use a bog standard WordPress blog!) There are sites that shame amateur looking book covers. I won’t go on. I’m sure you’ve seen the same kind of things if you’re a writer. This constant pressure to show you are as good as a ‘proper author’. And in doing so, there’s a trap that’s become more and more obvious.

Equal and identical are different things. In the rush to prove we’re as good as authors who have a publisher, we’ve missed the point of the revolutionary nature of self publishing. We’re trying to do what the Big Guns do, reproduce the same sort of books, the same sort of covers, and sell at the same level. And get paid a substantial amount more for the work we’d have had to have done anyway in terms now of the promotion every author is obliged to do. (unless they’re Stephen King etc).

So, this has been getting me down. It’s been interfering with my creative flow like a bloody great dam. I can’t write now without the ghost of a thought of, “Will this sell? Will this be the one that tips the balance into making me a massively successful best seller?”. It seeps into the whole process, and I’ve only just pinned it down.

It’s not wrong to want to sell lots of books, make a living from them. It’s not wrong to want to share your words with thousands of people, entertain and inform them.

But surely it should not be that energy that is unconsciously directing my writing? If there were a formula to what will sell, and how to do it, believe me it would be a closely guarded and very expensive secret. There isn’t and there can’t be because it’s something so nebulous that it’s even harder to predict than long range weather forecasts for Britain.

When self publishing first began to be a phenomenon, there was a great deal of excitement about it. You might do anything, publish anything. Niche books. Experimental books. ANYTHING at all. There were endless possibilities, all waiting for people to leap in and try them. What has changed it is the need to sell, to make money, to make back what you shelled out to produce a work, to be compensated for the time and tears it took to produce a book. We all have bills to pay, debts too, and day jobs that can be stultifying and depressing; the dream that someday you may earn enough from writing to quit the day job is very seductive, and the thing that can make that dream a reality is MONEY. So morphic resonance kicks in: the path of self publishing has been set now to be like publishing but without the publishers. The lists are chocka with excellent and not-so-excellent books that are in the main, pretty like the books you might find in a book-store packed with the latest blockbusters, must-reads and the latest from your favourite mystery authors.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this; please don’t get me wrong. But the whole drive for independence was originally about freedom. Freedom from the constraints of genre and of commercial viability, so there would be new worlds to explore.

I read with increasing dismay and depression the exhortations to be professional, to do things a certain way. To see writing as a business. To have five year plans and to keep to them. And all the many articles covering these subjects all end with the veiled threat that if you do not follow these paths, then your work will never sell, and you will never achieve your dream of leaving the day job behind. You’ll never be interviewed on breakfast TV with your latest runaway best seller; you’ll never mingle with the great and the good in the world of literature and books. You’ll never win prizes and accolades and be lionised as an example of how a self-published author can prove the nay-sayers wrong.

Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers. It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to chase a dream someone else (some tens of thousands of others in fact) seem to think I ought to be chasing. Even thinking about it is getting in the way of writing. And that’s all I am: a writer. I’m not an entrepreneur, nor a business woman nor a graphic designer or a marketing guru or any of the other things it seems one has to have some skills at. I write. I write stories that come to me, or which I chisel out of the bedrock of my being, and that’s it. To try and transform myself into this superwoman figure is wrong on some many levels. I was given gifts, which I have worked hard at honing and honouring, and they’re gifts that (without being immodest) many would sell their souls for. It’s entirely churlish to demand that somehow I turn my back on that, demand that I transform myself into another animal.

One of the most moving and powerful things in my life is the feedback I get from people about my writing (whether it is the books, the poetry or articles here). I know that my writing has made a difference, changed people’s lives in some ways, and the reason it can do that is because I’ve kept a hold of who I am and what I do. But the last six months I have felt my grip loosening, the compulsion to conform becoming almost unbearable. I imagine some might read this and think, “Oh poor dear, she thinks she’s a speshul snowflake!” . To those, I will say simply, yes, I do think I am a speshul snowflake and the reason I think it is because this is MY life and I get one chance to live it the way I choose to.

So I am choosing to live it (and to write) according to my own definitions of integrity and being true to myself and my gifts.

“Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Marx’s words on religion has surely been one of the most quoted of sound-bites and possibly the most misunderstood and mistranslated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

Main article: Marxism and religion

The quotation, in context, reads as follows (emphasis added):

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.[1]

I’m a fan of opiates. Opiates are what can make impossible pain bearable; they can ease the inevitable exit from this life, changing it from what can be screaming agony for days to a relatively peaceful death. They can soften chronic pain enough that life can go on. If you have ever had any major surgery, then you know the value of morphine.

As a society we have become brainwashed into toughing it out, believing that any sort of softening is wimping out, that is shows moral failure, a character flaw. The ability to endure pain without reaching for help is seen as something admirable. Some years ago, when I was at the height of my battle with endometriosis and depression, a colleague said sneeringly at me, “You take too many pills, girl.” At the time, I was taking nothing other than the bare minimum of pain relief that allowed me to get through my teaching day without passing out in pain. She had assumed that I was also taking anti-depressants and was passing judgement that I must therefore be weak and I really ought to just ‘man up’, grit my teeth and stop being a wuss. I wasn’t taking anti-depressants, not because I believed that to do so made me weak but because I’d found the side effects out weighed the very small benefit they might have had.

This illustrates what has become a strong undercurrent in our society, a hidden belief that we must push our selves beyond the pain, beyond the limits of our minds and bodies or become worthless. Media stories are jam packed with so-called inspirational stories of people who didn’t let their disabilities stop them from following their dreams. We are encouraged to see these stories as examples of how if someone with no legs can become and do what they want, then surely we can also achieve greatness.

I’ve discovered that pushing yourself when you are in pain is not always a good thing. In fact, it can be very damaging indeed. Pain is a warning from your body. It’s not a barrier to push through. It’s a very clear warning that you are about to exceed your limits. We tend to think of our bodies as somehow elastic, with endless rebound. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the biggest lie.

We have become a people aspiring to be superheroes. Whether in physical ways or in mental ones, we’re constantly exhorted to push push push past our pain. Well, I’ve begun to believe that this way leads to more pain. The effects of chronic pain on brain chemistry are well documented. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-chronic-pain-affects-memory-mood . We’re accustomed to the belief that toughing it out makes us stronger as people but the evidence is it weakens us in very real, physical ways.

For many years the quote from Marx has been bandied about as a denigration of religion. Until I read it in full, I saw it as such. But my own health has made me try to re-evaluate the problem of pain and pain relief and putting it into the context of world health, I’ve begun to wonder something. Life is painful, and no one gets out of it alive. So why do we fight against things that ease suffering?


Why I am NOT proud to be British

Why I am NOT proud to be British.

In the last year or two this country saw several events that brought out the bunting and the Union flags by the million. A royal wedding, a Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. I had zero interest bordering on outright boredom for the royal wedding, a mild feeling of goodwill towards the Queen for her jubilee and outright hostility to the Olympics. Explaining quite how opposed I was to what many termed the event of the century is going to be complicated so suffice it to say it was a combination of an objection to the hidden machinations that went on, the vast overspend of public money at a time when public services are teetering on collapse, an indifference to spectacle and sport and a few other issues.

What I heard a lot last year was the phrase, “It makes me proud to be British!” It baffled me. Let me explain why before I get strung up.

I’m British. Not only was I born here, but my ancestors back to the start of the eighteenth century were born here for sure (before that time, there’s a lot of Irish; go back to the tenth century and my ancestors were Norman warlords from Anjou. ‘Nuff said I think). I love this country, with its quirks and traditions and the countryside, and the mad weather and the melting pot of cultures. But I’m not proud to be British. To be proud of something like that is somehow claiming credit for a choice, a decision, a participation in that collective identity. I did not choose to be born here. I have done nothing in my life time to add to that sense of national identity, of being an integral part of what makes Britain, Britain. I’m just one citizen among around 62 million other citizens. I have no special claim to have added something to this country, to give me a sense of being proud of a collective achievement that being proud to be British might suggest.

In my forty or so years, I’ve learned to love (or endure!) the peculiarities of my country. I sometimes watch cricket, that sport so baffling to almost every American I’ve known, and while I’m indifferent to the sport, the quintessential English-ness of the game charms me. I’ve had to explain the British reticence and politeness and sense of humour to hundreds if not thousands of TEFL students. We’re a strange nation.

In the last five years I have watched with dismay as some of the things this country got right, like education, health care and the arts, are being ruthlessly undermined till they begin to collapse, set upon by a ruling elite arrogant enough to think we will just accept it. This is the nation whose women fought for suffrage, put their fight on hold during the Great War and took up the struggle again once war was over. We are not passive doormats; we fight back against iniquities. Yet now the people who are taking to the streets and demonstrating about what they feel is wrong are focusing entirely on the wrong things. Manipulated by media, blame is being laid on groups perceived as outsiders, immigrants and overseas minorities. It makes me very sad and very angry. Understandable outrage at lack of jobs is being twisted into hatred against groups that have very little to do with the issue.

I’m not politically savvy. But I’ve watched the way the government has been cutting and cutting and cutting at the most vulnerable of targets, from the disabled to our treasured health service, and it appals me that it’s just being allowed to happen. Recently, there was a leak of a proposal to cap GP visits at just 3 per year. Current health minister Jeremy Hunt has now gone on record saying this will NEVER happen (and also casting aspersions at various pressure groups, suggesting they’d made it up) but only after a high profile campaign and petition made it quite clear how much of a vote loser this would be.

Once, if asked, I would have had no hesitation in agreeing that had I had such a choice, I would have chosen to have been born in this country. Now I would hesitate to answer it in such a way. I love my country, but I am seeing less to be proud of as I get older and more to grieve for, for what has slipped away and for what has been stolen by greedy, amoral people who are the ruling so-called elite. 

The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

The Invisible Woman speaks…will you listen?

Hey, you there?

Yes, you.

I know you can hear me, but you know what? I’m standing right in front of you and you are barely aware of me. My voice might well be the sound of the wind in the trees, always there and yet never truly listened to.

I should really say, OUR voice, because I am not one but many. Many. Countless and timeless, we’ve been invisible for a very long time.

You protest perhaps, declaring that women are not really invisible. They’re everywhere. Half the planet’s population even. I would simply ask you why then do we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the world’s wealth? You might wave a newspaper in front of me, pointing to grainy photos of women, or direct me to the internet news. Women everywhere, you say.

Well, yes. But do you SEE them? Or do you merely look at them, taking in curves and synthetic smiles and enhanced features, polished and tanned and oiled for your pleasure? Young, slender women, barely even out of girlhood and constantly harking back to its simpler demands of beauty and silence.

You point out older women, who you say are very good examples of beautiful older women. Or to women who have climbed a corporate ladder or that of government or leadership. But do read also the comments, about their clothes or their figure or their skin or sex appeal. You rarely get comments about anything else. Many of these are the women whose childhood was punctuated by the cries of relatives male and female declaring, “She should have been a boy!”

Feminism? I do not know what feminism is. I only know that at a certain age, we all begin to fade from view. That is what fuels the industry of anti-ageing creams, you know. It’s not fear of death that worries women most, I think; it’s the fear of becoming invisible, and ultimately inaudible too. You can still hear me because I am shouting now. I was brought up to be quiet and polite and not to put myself forward, so it takes a lot for me to be shouting now. I’d grab your arms and shake you, but that would be simply so rude it would throw me into that other darkness of age and madness. Another mad old woman, babbling insanities, to be shut away and ignored. Kinder to kill such folks, that’s the next thought. God forbid that they be heard and listened to.

When do we become invisible? I do not know. I think it varies. Some of us were never terribly visible in the first place. If you are not blessed with something outwardly apparent to catch the interest of the world, you remain a mouse in the wainscotting, there but easy enough to ignore. It takes a lot of mice to wake up a whole house. For those who were blessed with outward beauty, the fading of it is bitter because we cease to be seen, slowly, like a long death. That’s why Snow White’s stepmother went down the route of bitterness, you know. She sensed she was being eclipsed, and soon her image in the mirror would become grey and dim and then gone. Every young mum has a moment where the admiration expressed towards her infants hits a harsh note, like a wisp of sun over the clouds. We dress our daughters up and parade them, repeating what we knew in the unconscious hope that her loveliness will not fade and we will not see her becoming slowly invisible.

So we do other things to try and be a part of the world. We seek roles of kindness and service, often, because we are thwarted at the Front from real combat because the only way of being seen for long enough is by relinquishing our femininity. Or at least the outward trappings of it. We wear business suits, cut for our curves, but in essence the same uniform as the men. Without such armour how can we even enter the Lists?

Those whose academic gifts carried them far into their path bear also a harsh burden. It’s not enough to succeed through your brains alone; enter the public consciousness via the media and you will be judged not for your work or your soul but through your outward appearance.

It’s enough to make a woman weep, but even tears are seen as weakness and not the healing balm they truly are. Cry, and you get labelled with one of the cruellest, most impossible of labels: the hysterical woman. The source of our femininity, the womb, is cursed as the thing that makes us weak. And yet, when that womb starts its journey towards the quiescence of menopause, we are not welcomed either but dismissed as worthless now we can no longer bear children. We become useless and repulsive, as if all our worth was invested in being breeders of another generation, and once we are retired, we become invisible sexually.

I do not offer answers; I only offer questions, and yet more questions. I do not ask to be answered, except with the courtesy of being listened to. I am a warrior but the first lesson of any war is to only choose the battles you have a chance of winning. My battles are by necessity are the small ones, as I learn what my skills are.

You walk away, shaking your head. That’s all right. You listened, even if you did not truly understand yet. One battle at a time, that is what I promised myself. I fight not with a sword or with other weapons that bear an edge but with words that can be sharpened or softened and can shape the listener’s perception so that maybe, for one moment of blinding clarity, they too may see things from the other side.