Sunday, 19 December 2010

Season's Greetings

First Christmas has passed successfully. Daughter Nikki made it home two hours late from Madrid, but 24 hours ahead of the snowstorm that closed Edinburgh airport to all but departures.

She's off to Canada with her boyfriend Greg (blizzards permitting) on Thursday so an early Christmas celebration was required. It wasn't the traditional Jackson Christmas - we usually have Beef Wellington a la Doug - for some reason she opted for turkey, but it was traditional in most other ways. We had eight people at the dinner table, but we catered for sixteen. The cooks almost came to blows over how to stuff a turkey (who can tell the difference between neck and backside when they're both missing?) and when to start the veg, but despite the surfeit of giant kitchen knives bloodshed was avoided. On the plus side my other daughter Kara's smoked salmon and mackerel pate concoction was undoubtedly dish of the day and will be repeated. Secret Santas were exchanged and Ruaridh's gift of nuclear grade tabasco proved capable of setting fire to the street. It's now en route to Porton Down for examination.

Nikki and Kara: dishes of the day
On a more literary note, mine (courtesy of Gregor) was a winner. I now have a brilliant history of 69AD The Year of the Four Emperors, which would have played a pivotal part in my Hero of Rome, Valerius Verren's life and was probably the most traumatic eighteen months in the Empire's history. Valerius has already become acquainted with two of the main protagonists and he definitely has a role to play. Who knows if it's a story I'll ever write, but it's great to have another story that you are desperate to tell.

The countdown now begins to Christmas proper and the spirit is willing, even though the flesh is a little underwhelmed.

We'll be thinking of absent friends and I hope you will too.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Monday, 6 December 2010

You can't judge a book by its cover - or its reviews

I was going to have two weeks away from the computer, but I only lasted about ten days and to be honest my fingers were itching to be at the keyboard the moment I got back from my weekend in Madrid and from choice, not necessity. You just can't escape the next book.

But it gave me a chance to step back from things and take a slightly more detached view of books and book people. There were a couple of interesting stories in the papers about the Amazon review system, with suggestions that certain writers are planting poor reviews on their rivals' websites. It's not a new accusation; a friend of mine is certain that a much more successful author in the same genre has conducted a prolonged campaign against him under half a dozen different names. Only a couple of months ago the Russian scholar Orlando Figes was forced to apologise for savaging a fellow historian's books on Amazon under a false name.

Then there was the revelation that some publishing companies actually pay to plant glowing reviews of their authors' work on the site. A PR film has cheerfully admitted charging £5,000 for supplying the service, which probably makes it more lucrative to write reviews than most books. I suppose that helps explain why it's amazing how often when you look at a novel's Amazon page the first half a dozen or more five star reviews are followed by a one or two star as the actual paying customers get involved. Sometimes it's because it's the author has asked his mates to post a review if they've enjoyed his book, which I suppose is fair enough. But some writers seem to have a lot more mates than others.

Taken together it makes you wonder if the whole online review system isn't totally flawed.

Not that anything will change. No book publisher is going to take a single step back from the internet when the entire industry is in danger of being sucked into whirling vortex that is the world wide web. And, let's be perfectly honest, for a writer there's nothing better than someone giving their unbiased opinion that you've produced a masterpiece.

The only people who can improve the situation are the book buying public. If the first few pages of each and every book on Amazon were available in preview it would give readers the opportunity to try before they buy and there's no better, honest or more straightforward way of judging a product than that.