A loss of independence? Goodreads by Amazon

Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise by the announcement that Goodreads is being taken over by Amazon, and generally there seems to be concern about Amazon taking over the world of online bookselling. The Authors’ Guild’s observation that it is a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” has not found complete agreement, but this blog is, unsurprisingly, more concerned with how the change is going to affect indie authors.

As many readers of this blog may have discovered for themselves, Amazon has an erratic and somewhat ruthless approach to the way reviews are posted for indie books. That this scrutiny was probably triggered by the fake reviews scandal last year shows that this is not a situation unique to indie authors, but it does seem that reviews of indie-authored books are scrutinised much more closely than those from print publishers. Certainly anecdotal evidence gathered at allonymbooks indicates that indie authors do find reviews of their books just disappearing.

From an indie point of view, Goodreads represented a safe haven, as it were, where there were strong forum communities supporting and interested in indie books. Being reader-driven it was perceived as free-standing of commercial interest from any individual bookseller, providing as it did links to B&N and other retailers as well as Amazon for book purchases, and it has done well in the past to promote a sense that reading, the enjoyment of books, and the sharing of reading experiences are its paramount goals. One presumes that those other retailer links will go in due course, as Amazon is hardly likely to want that option available. And so, one fears, might the perception of that not only is the site free-standing, but also that its aim is to share the enjoyment of books. It would be very sad if it became a marketplace, where the loudest shouters win the customers, for Goodreads has up to now managed to keep that small community/big community Continue reading

Indie Book Reviews (2)

This week Evie Woolmore reviews a short story and a set of short stories, both rich with atmosphere, and a historical novel full of detail.

Leah and her Twelve Brothers by William Saunders (available at Amazon UK and US)

This collection of short stories has both a timeless and a very specific period feel to it, fusing a sort of Edwardian curiosity about the world with some quite contemporary touches. Leah waits at home while her twelve brothers explore the world, and she receives from each of them four gifts, borne by somewhat caricatured natives of the cities they are visiting. Leah weaves a story from each set of gifts, and then ponders its significance with one of three gentleman callers.

It is an interesting premise for a story collection – something of Sophie’s World meets Aesop’s Fables – and they often work well when woven together with a theme or narrative. Indeed in this instance, the collection allows the author to explore some quite philosophical and metaphysical ideas, as well as some moral ones. Leah is in some ways the most interesting of the characters, though for this reader the repetitive format of her receipt of the gifts, the encyclopaedia entries, and then the long opening descriptive prose passages of each story could have taken more variety. For while we learn much about Leah’s imagination, we don’t learn much about her character. Her male companions are rather stifling of her at times, and she never really develops very much, Continue reading

Hey, you at the Guardian blog: who cares what Chris Huhne is reading in prison – where are the indie book reviews?

This week’s post is short and grumpy and best summed up by lines from Billy Bragg’s song ‘A New England’, immortalised by the peerless Kirsty MacColl: “I loved the words you wrote to me, but that was bloody yesterday…” (copyright Billy Bragg, but just go and buy the track anyway, it’s writing as brilliant as any recent Booker Prize winner).

In November, Guardian Books asked for recommendations for indie (or self- as they call it) published books, promising a stream of reviews. Loyal Guardian readers suggested a lot of titles for them to try out. We have had two reviews in return. And they were both before 4th December.  Nothing since.

Indie authors continue to write quality fiction. They continue to sell books. They will do so without the aid of The Guardian, one supposes.

But wouldn’t even one decent review of an indie published novel contribute more to the literary firmament than mildly comic analysis of Chris Huhne’s potential to emulate Jeffrey Archer? For while it is more than likely that the disgraced MP would likely get a print publishing deal on the back of his reputation and no conspicuous demonstration of creative talent, quality indie publishing is going to go on a lot longer than his prison sentence.

Wake up Guardian Books.

Like a phoenix from the ashes: an authonomy experience

When the website authonomy first emerged into the fringes of publishing, four and a half years ago, it seemed unlikely that anyone could have anticipated the way it would foreshadow the indie publishing movement. Designed by HarperCollins as an online companion to their slush pile, the site operated on the premise that unpublished and self-publishing authors could upload their novels for review by other writers and, using a ratings-based chart system, the best books would eventually rise up to sit on the Editor’s Desk. From there the top five each month would be given a critique by the HC editorial team, with the hope on all sides that books would be signed up and authors given contracts.

Indeed, many participants are still joining and participating with that hope in mind, but in the Forums even as far back as October 2009, some writers were already anticipating how things might change. Author JP Noel wrote “In this rapidly changing world it would seem that an author would be better served by taking his material online and publishing it directly to the readers using a website and a simple shopping cart program to down load a PDF file.” His avatar is now a hand holding a Kindle and the self-publishing thread on the forums is well-established.

Under another pseudonym in January 2009, allonymbooks put two books on site, Evie Woolmore’s Rising Up and another very different novel, of which more later. We were curious about how the read/review/rate process would work, and in terms of being a precursor to the Twitter follow-me-I’ll-follow-you cycle which was discussed in another recent blog, we were particularly interested in the extent to which people would review our book in exchange for a review of theirs. What emerged were essentially two key groups of people among the Continue reading

Decline and Fall at the BBC: are books taking a beating?

John Dugdale’s blog for The Guardian this week about the decline of proper arts coverage and critical review on the BBC was thought-provoking. His observation that there is virtually no adequate quality television programming by the BBC on the arts, in particular books, was a chilling reminder of how the emphasis in so many parts of the media has moved away from in-depth discussion and towards the visual and the superficial. Although the BBC’s radio channels still give quite a lot of coverage to books, it seems that in a world of ever-increasing headlines, we lack feature articles. We value pictures over words. His concluding paragraph also cleverly pointed out a startling contradiction in the BBC’s same television programming: its reliance on literary adaptations for so much of its television drama.

The BBC’s mission to educate has long been sublimated to its desire to entertain, and in a generation when education itself has become unfashionable, Dugdale’s point that “the tone increasingly required of presenters, in arts output as in science or history films, is boyish or girlish enthusiasm” suggests that all informative programmes have been given the gloss of celebrity and shallowness. We will be better convinced by what we are told if the teller looks good and sounds cheerful. Certainly, Sky’s The Book Show, while masquerading as ‘serious’ programming on Sky’s Arts channel and with the clearly well-read Mariella Frostrup in the chair, still manages to land only a glancing blow on critical reception, largely because the people it interviews are authors talking about their own books. It is theequivalent of the glossy women’s magazine reading of literature: two column inches summing up a plot and its readability for airport layovers or the beach.

Does it matter that television seems to be opting out of its responsibility to the other arts? Several commenters on Dugdale’s blog noted that the BBC’s radio coverage of books is very good in both scope and depth, and it implies that there is something about the spoken word alone that gives the space for contemplation. People who listen to radio probably have more time to listen and think: it is the same principle that applies to a film and its music – we pick up the significance of a single camera shot immediately, but it takes several seconds to grasp the interpretation the music is providing. One cannot appreciate the depth of a radio discussion in a five second burst, flicking from channel to channel. And so perhaps there is just more room in radio to do justice to proper critical discussion of literature.

The difficulty is that the BBC has set the benchmark for so long for what is possible in television, that when it falls short – when any TV channel falls short – we feel short-changed. This rather casual approach to books is also demonstrated in the BBC News website coverage of literature. Since the new year, two very simplistic pieces of journalism purportedly about indie publishing have been put on their website, neither of which does any justice to the issue at all, and are hardly good advertisements for quality journalism either. The article ‘Do you have the write stuff to be a novelist?’ reported on a self-publishing author who, though surely interesting, is not remotely representative of his indie peers when he describes receiving only “six or eight rejections” from print publishers before turning to self-publishing.

Worse still, the article ‘The authors who are going it alone online – and winning’ was in fact comparing John Locke to Joanna Mallon and Amanda Hocking, the latter two saying just the opposite ofthe title: that indie-publishing was not the right route for them at all. Again, hardly the sort of quality, in-depth journalism that the BBC was once renowned for, and about as utterly  unrepresentative of indie publishing as it could be.

The BBC has had plenty of criticism lately, and this blog is not leaping on that bandwagon. But if the web articles are anything to go by, it shows that the BBC’s visually-led presence and pursuit of a strong internet ‘headlines’ brand is not compatible with the in-depth critical engagement required to reflect adequately the longer written form.

In other words, the BBC is not fit to feed the book world, merely to pluck the best of its fruits for reinventing in a form most suited to their aims. Not ours.

Indie Publishing: A Study in Modern Manners?

One of the themes of Evie Woolmore’s novel Equilibrium is the breaking down of boundaries, particularly social ones. In the novel, whose Edwardian setting reflects the very great tension between the public and the private, not only does Martha masquerade publicly in very few clothes as an inviting spirit from the other world, but the spirits themselves abandon appropriate privacies to speak their secrets directly. More than one character ‘says something they shouldn’t’ and the blurring of upstairs and downstairs, the movement of protagonists between front of house and back and between class environments fragments the natural order, and the proper codes of behaviour.

In an era of social media, we are constantly examining and questioning what those codes are, and in a climate of free speech and the ubiquitous mobile phone, the concept of privacy seems increasingly fragile. We know the details of countless strangers’ private lives, we could see the Duchess of Cambridge’s baby bump if we chose, and we can watch Oscar Pistorius cry in court. But the column this week is going to discuss three instances of how fragmentation of definitions of ‘appropriate behaviour’ has impacted indie publishing.

Twitter is constantly under scrutiny for the role it plays in freedom of speech, but an aspect of it which has become Continue reading

Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore: Review by the Historical Novel Society

allonymbooks is delighted to announce that Evie Woolmore‘s historical magical realist novel Equilibrium has just been reviewed in the Indie section of the Historical Novel Society:

“Equilibrium” is an evocative tale of two sisters – Epiphany and Martha – who are mediums performing on stage in London in the early 1900s. Lady Adelia Lyward sees the performance and wants Epiphany to give her a private reading in order to learn the truth about her brother’s death – not knowing that the sisters have a previous connection to her household: Martha was a housemaid to the Lyward’s two years previous. She had a child by Adelia’s husband, Lord Rafe Lyward, left the household in disgrace, gave her child away and attempted suicide. She knows there’s more to the Lyward household than meets the eye.

“Equilibrium” starts slowly, but the mystery surrounding Adelia’s brother’s death is skillfully revealed. I would like to have seen the historical elements of the story more strongly developed and expanded – not just the social changes in England during this period but also a clearer picture of the experiences Adelia’s brother had during the Boer War. But the story is rich in complex characters just the same, and the character of Epiphany gives the story a calm and delicate reality as the plot unfolds. I recommend “Equilibrium” to readers who enjoy historical fiction with spiritualist influences.

Equilibrium is available for Kindle from Amazon UK or US