Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

What does it take to become a success in the world of online self-publishing? Is there a particular kind of novel that is more likely to do well in an electronic format? And if there is, how would one go about writing such a book?

These are the kinds of questions that you don’t find authors and publishers debating much yet, but perhaps they should. Glance around your nearest bookshop or, and you’ll find a million manuals that explain how to create a novel, using chapter headings such as ‘Learning Your Craft’ and ‘Ten Rules for Good Time Management’. But few of these manuals discuss the importance of the space into which a novel is delivered, and what it means for the authors who are publishing now.

Make no mistake about it: publishing online is a totally different proposition from doing it on plain old paper. Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example. Think of the harried reader who buys a Kindle to read on crowded commutes. Think of the modern world, in which a million types of entertainment compete for our attention. And think of who is succeeding in this new world, and why.

Many self-published books which began life in an electronic format have now succeeded beyond the authors’ wildest expectations. Take the eyebrow-raising Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for example; or new bestseller Wool by Hugh Howey, which is about to be turned into a big-budget Ridley Scott film; or Switched, the debut novel in the million-plus selling Trylle Trilogy by the 20-something Amanda Hocking.

What do these books have in common besides their humble origins? Actually, quite a lot. All the authors in question write within specific genres: S&M (EL James); dystopian fantasy (Howey) and trolls (Hocking). They are suspenseful and attention-grabbing, using blunt, effective (and sometimes very poorly rendered) prose to keep and hold readers. They are short, but allow for the possibility of sequels. They lack profound messages. “My goal was to keep people reading,” Hocking has said. “They have to ignore everything else and read the book.”

In his latest book, How Music Works, David Byrne talks about the importance of context in the area of music. The Talking Heads founder says that the type of music we make is vastly influenced by the space into which that music is delivered: so we get drums in a tribal space, which carry well over distance, and plaintive choir singing in a high-ceilinged church. At CBGB, for example, the small room lent itself well to the performance of punk rock – a sound which would have seemed ridiculous if performed in a church. The Ramones and Mozart both understood intrinsically what would work for their particular type of arena. They knew that environment plays a huge role in shaping the music.

For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily. Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose. And the world of writers will have to learn to provide for that. So maybe it’s time for those self-help manual authors to take a leaf out of a new book – and begin to think about what it means to be a successful author in today’s world of e-publishing. After all, increasingly, it’s where the big bucks lie.


A Shame We Must All Bear (my Artistic Licence column on Savita, Sunday Business Post, 18/11/12)

It’s hard to articulate the feelings of frustration, rage and helplessness that come from hearing about the death of a young woman in an Irish hospital of septicaemia after a miscarriage. After being told the baby would not survive, the woman’s husband said doctors refused requests for a medical termination.

It’s hard to properly describe, too, the lingering sense that perhaps blood is on our hands. We are the people who allow our public representatives to push abortion legislation down the political agenda. We are the people; we make the laws. Did a young Indian woman have to die in a Galway hospital, reportedly told that this was a “Catholic country”, before we got upset enough to do something? Isn’t a refusal to try harder – to get angry enough to effect political change – also, in its own way, a tacit consent?

‘Shame’ ran the headline of one placard carried by a protester outside the Dáil on Wednesday night. The New York Times, the London Independent, Al Jazeera: media outlets in countries around the world told the story of what happened – and they judged us for the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who arrived into a Galway hospital pregnant one week, and was carried out of it the next, to her funeral. They were correct to do so. In our inertia, we are all complicit.

Last month, Time magazine carried a portrait of Enda Kenny, thoughtful and erudite-looking, on its cover. The Last Action Hero for Ireland, the Green Saviour. In the accompanying interview, Kenny spoke of how now was not the time for abortion legislation.

“I think that this issue is not of priority for government now,” he said, confident he was reflecting the views of his backward-facing Emerald Isle.

And you wonder: were we just better at protesting in the 1970s and 1980s? Remember those images of Nell McCafferty on the contraceptive train? Remember those 1980s photographs of celebrities at pro-choice movements? Have we become so overwhelmed by mortgage stress, so distracted by our iPhones, so enthralled by dancing kittens on YouTube, that we can’t focus on anything of worth? Are we – in our heart of hearts – sometimes a little embarrassed about being gauche enough to be seen waving a flag at a protest march and standing up for what we believe in?

Ordinarily, this column is intended to discuss arts and cultural issues, about anything from Big Brother to the Rolling Stones. But culture, in its widest form, is about the structure inside which we exist today. It includes gay rights and women’s rights. And it is the trampoline that is now propelling the tragic story of Savita skywards.

News of her death bounced from a person with ten followers on Twitter to a person with 10,000. Reading the outpourings of compassion for Savita, I saw urgent tweets being sent to feminist writers including Naomi Wolf and Caitlin Moran, asking them to make the story known to their huge audiences. People were agitating, forming protests in Dublin, London and further afield. Writing 20,000 emails of protest to their TDs, mobilised by bloggers and tweeters.

Will it help effect change? None of it will bring a young woman back. But we have to try to make our voices heard.

The BBC’s Mark Simpson was one of several reporters who interviewed Savita’s husband last week. Asked by Simpson if he felt his wife would be alive if she could have had an abortion, he answered simply: “Of course. No doubt.”

A Bad Year for the Roses (my SBP Artistic Licence column from 26.08)

The rumbles of discontent could be felt within minutes. The Rose of Tralee had arrived on the box in all its antiquated, dewy-eyed glory, but it didn’t take long before fans, eagerly awaiting their annual wince-fest, were left reeling. The 32 Roses had gone and shocked all of us, and not in their usual, perfectly acceptable fashion — by simpering at us in weapons-grade sparkly dresses until we begged for mercy. No, things were much worse than that. These Roses appeared to be staging a rebellion before our very eyes.

The tweets came flying in. “Is there a ban on the party piece?” asked mystified tweeter Becky Cawley (@becky_cawley). “What’s the point of being a Rose if you don’t do a party piece?” wondered @siobhansiobhan. Rose after Rose came and went with a flutter of the hand, a swoosh of the dress, a bit of small talk about their career goals and then — nothing. Zip. No song. No dance. No demonstration of `talent’.

The party piece is not compulsory, explained @roseoftralee_ — the official Twitter account — somewhat defensively. “Each gets to pick a party piece if they wish.” But it was a sad state of affairs when the best of the tragically few party pieces in the overstuffed ballroom came courtesy of the Kilkenny Rose, who, like a good sport, agreed to make her trademark dolphin noise (remarkably convincing). Other party pieces included a Maori song, a failed magic trick, an extract from Oscar Wilde and a version of Whiskey in the Jar (let’s just say the Sydney Rose was creative in her rendition).

All the Roses who performed made mistakes. But the mistakes were part of the point. Forget all this nonsense about the “truth in her eyes ever dawning”, the Rose is about so much more than that. It’s about pluck and vim. It’s about saying that one can perform under conditions that are almost impossible and with skills so meagre that only a Rose with the most giant of balls would dare don a sparkly dress and try to sell herself to an audience. The Rose is a metaphor for Ireland itself: pinched into a tight dress, vulnerable and forced to sing for its supper.

Consider the pluck last year of the Dublin Rose, ferociously giving herself over to hip-hop manoeuvres, despite the dress issues, sound glitches and audience of baffled blue rinses in front of her. Now that’s what I call entertainment. Without such events, who would we have to parody? What would Father Ted have done? And how has it come to such a pass that presenter Daithi must don high heels to give us a lift?

It was no surprise that, after the virtually non-existent party pieces, the attendance in front of the telly was low for the second night of the Rose of Tralee festival — the lowest audience that the Rose of Tralee has pulled in for eight years. Frankly, those 32 shyster Roses deserved our apathy — well, at least those of them who refused to perform.

At the end of the two nights, it was the teacher, the Luxembourg Rose, who bravely admitted to giving her teddy bears exams as a child, who was crowned the winning Rose. It was no surprise, really. Nicola McEvoy had a song. She sang La Vie en Rose, and made a good fist of it — not impressive enough to be a pro (no one wants X-Factor), but not bad enough to scare the horses. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous,” cooed Daithi, mopping his brow with relief. At last, here was someone who understood the game.

Begging for mercy: my Artistic Licence column from 22/07 Sunday Business Post

A couple of months back, I wrote about a new book called Fifty Shades of Grey which had just been published in Ireland. Gosh, that seems a long time ago now, back when men were men and mommies didn’t read porn on the Luas.

I no longer own my copy of Fifty Shades. I don’t know who does. Once the EL James smutfest became a popular hit, it was ripped from me faster than a free pair of Jimmy Choos in Brown Thomas and passed on and on. For the few still innocent about it and curious, I tell them it’s like a Sweet Valley High novel blended with the James Spader film Secretary: all laugh-out-loud, adolescent language paired with hardcore, restraints-laden sex.

But realistically there aren’t many people left who don’t know about 19-year-old Anastasia, her inner goddess and its tendency to “sway and writhe to carnal rhythms” while Christian Grey pats his brown, plaited leather riding crop with relish. Just like that, S&M has gone mainstream.

As I write this column, a group email has been sent around by a colleague with the best Irish Fifty Shades of Grey jokes (sample: “`Give it to me, give it to me’, he roared aggressively. Some days Mary hated working at Ulster Bank.”). Headlines for articles these days brandish lines like `Fifty Shades of Skin’ (a review of Magic Mike), and a joke advert for Dulux paint (showing you their version of fifty shades of grey) has become a Twitter hit.

Dulux should be delighted: every promoter worth his or her salt is trying to think of something to tie in with the book that has become a phenomenon. That well-known dominator of kitchens Gordon Ramsey told the Ray D’Arcy show he and his wife liked the audio book version — cue the icky punchline about hands-free versions. A-list actors are duking it out for the role of Christian in the film version.

But alas, for me the joke has grown old. Now the entire country is reading the book (21,000 copies sold in the Republic last week), Ireland has become like the orgy you’re not allowed leave, even though your wrinkled old grandparents have arrived to the party.

And the Red Room of Pain (the bookshop) is about to get more threatening. Fifty Shades will eventually reach saturation point, but that won’t spell the end. Far from it. “Publishers are releasing at least 20 of these kinds of books in the months up to Christmas,” says Dave O’Callaghan, books buyer with Eason. “Two have come in this week. One of them, Haven of Obedience, was originally what you’d call a top-shelf book. The original cover showed a semi-naked woman straddling a gentleman in leather. Now it’s a lovely Fifty Shades-esque silk scarf cover. People wouldn’t have bought the original in a million years.”

But they’ll buy the book now. They’ll buy anything that looks like Fifty Shades of Grey — Jane Eyre Laid Bare and the spoof Fifty Shades of Mr Darcy are also on the way. Remember misery lit? Remember the crap you had to wade through to get to one decent novel? This will be worse.

In S&M sex, as opposed to `vanilla’, there’s usually a code — a line Anastasia could say to make Christian back off with the whips and make her a nice cup of tea instead. If only there was one for this book. EL James, I have reached my limit and I’m begging for mercy. Please make it stop: this poor submissive can’t take any more pain.

The joy of the bad review: my Artistic Licence column from The Sunday Business Post, 10/06/12

There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 slacker film Singles, in which band member Eddie (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, playing himself) discovers a newspaper review of his group Citizen Dick while the guys — all scraggy hair, bad jumpers and pale skin — are chilling out in a Seattle diner. Lead singer Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon) tells Eddie not to read anything negative, and then sits back, a confident smile on his lips. Eddie reads the long review in long and troubling silence, until he gets to the final line, a line that can be read aloud: “Other than that, he was ably backed by Stone and Jeff, and drummer Eddie Vedder.”

It’s a clever moment in a film that became a touchstone for the slacker/grunge zeitgeist, not only because it featured members of Pearl Jam, but because it struck a chord in every band’s life — that moment when they picked up a newspaper to discover that someone loathes their material and has penned a review that fairly sparks with menace in its attempts to document said fact in an entertaining and readable manner.

Good reviews are a balm for artists. They can bathe in the warm glow of their positivity, and look forward to generating sales off the back of them. But bad reviews are tremendous affairs for almost everyone else. They generate interest, provoke controversy and help sell newspapers. Everyone loves reading a scythingly awful review, even sometimes people who would describe themselves as friends or colleagues of the artist in question — consider the honesty of Gore Vidal’s line: `When a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Ridiculous as it may be, when an evil-faced review appears, there’s a little part of us that exults in the fact that the axe has not fallen on our own heads. We have been spared to fight another day. We feel larger for someone else’s diminution. It’s awful and wrong, but it’s human nature.

Even if schadenfreude is not rearing its ugly head, bad reviews are nearly always more entertaining to read than the good ones. Reviewers are rarely more witty or inspired than when they’re drop-kicking and pummelling an offensively soggy offering into submission. From this newspaper, consider Jonathan O’Brien’s withering verdict on Sigur Ros: “They’re just a four-man Enya singing in a different language”. Or an acid Kevin Power on the novel Skios: “The most impressive page in Michael Frayn’s new novel appears at the front of the book, and is headed “By the same author.” Ouch!

Recognising the allure of the wretched review, a new book of reviews by the Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner doesn’t bother to include the positive refrains: My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out exclusively deals in cat-haired batter, lukewarm coffee and mushy avocado. Rayner is a man who knows his audience.  

But a bad review only truly gains power at full-throttle when it allows itself to contain a strand of positivity, a silver lining to highlight the overwhelming gloom. That scrap of positivity is what makes the reader understand that this isn’t a personalised attack; that it is, in fact, a fair review.

Ultimately that’s why the scene in Singles so well-written — because, in praising Eddie Vedder, Stone and Jeff, the resulting emphasis on poor Matt Dillon’s failures as a lead singer became even more authoritative. And so Cliff Poncier had to face facts: that his music really was just “pompous dick-swinging swill from a man who has haunted the local scene for far too long.” Probably not one for the scrap-book, then.