Sunday, 30 January 2011

It's all ancient history now

Since I started researching and writing my books I've occasionally come across articles that promised great new possibilities, but that wouldn't let me access them unless I coughed up forty dollars or the like. Being on a tight budget (or a cheapskate, take your pick) I balked at paying out cash on the off-chance that I might learn how some Roman tied that loin-cloth thing that passed for underwear in the first century, or confirmation that they may not, in fact, have eaten dormice stuffed with larks tongues. There were a number of these sites, but the main one was something called JSTOR, which is an online repository of academic journals.

So there I was last week, frustrated again, when I looked at the list of institutions who actually do have access and one of them was the National Library of Scotland. Five minutes later I have a virtual library card and I'm in, feeling like a kid who's just found a fiver outside a sweety shop.

So I've spent the last couple of days with academics from Oxford and Harvard and the University of whotsit in Baaden Wurttenberg picking up the kind of nit-picking detail you can't get anywhere else on the planet and loving every dry, dusty mind-numbing minute of it. One of the most interesting things is how seldom articles on similar subjects agree with each other, which finally brings me to the point of this post.

I had an e-mail from a fellow author, James Mace, an American gentleman who writes the Soldier of Rome series, and he made the point that he always sticks as faithfully to known history as possible. Which begged the question: What do we mean by known history when we're talking about half a dozen sources who died two thousand years ago?

Reading my wordy academic works brought home that what we think of as known history is incredibly mixed up and messy. Roman historians, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio, were writing decades, or in some cases hundreds of years after the events they're recording. Unless they tell you who was consul (and even that isn't 100 per cent reliable) they don't provide dates. Tacitus wasn't big on geography and he had a habit of missing out important detail. Suetonius lumps all the good stuff about an emperor at the start and the bad bits at the end, with no hint at when they happened. Dio pinched passages from earlier writers and added a few juicy bits. All of them will happily put words in their subjects mouths to make a political point, but I've read historians who quote Boudicca's speech before her last battle as if Dio was there taking it down in shorthand and we should believe every word. We don't know if the Boudiccan rebellion was in 59, 60 or 61AD, or if it happened over two weeks or two years. Dio's history of Claudius's invasion of Britain mentions an elephant, which gave me the foundation for my first two books. Fine, maybe there was, maybe there wasn't, but some quite highly regarded historian turned elephant into elephants, and somebody else turned elephants into a squadron of war elephants, which is just plain wrong. Yet kids will read it in their history books and believe it.

What I'm trying to say, in my long-winded way, is that when it comes to ancient Rome we don't know anything. We have sources and we have conflicting opinions about what those sources are saying and what they actually mean to say. We don't have facts, we have supposition and interpretation of tiny pieces of evidence.

So when you're writing historical fiction should you stick rigidly to the facts, or do you just go ahead and use what's there to write a good book and make it as authentic as possible?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

I've seen the future and it might just work

One of the first recommendations at today's Working as a Writer in the 21st Century conference at the Scottish Book Trust in Edinburgh was to keep your websites up to date, so, as you see, I've taken that one on board at least.

It was a day that gave me an enormous amount to think about and increased my confidence that it is actually possible to make a long term living from writing, even in these gloomy times of dwindling advances, closing libraries and smaller publishers' lists.

It started off with a talk from Julian Westaby of Dunning/Creating Sparks who gave the forty or so assembled writers and agents a crash course in how to combine Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr into one big powerful marketing tool for their books and themselves. I'd never considered that either my books or, more importantly, me, lent themselves to video promotions, but by the end of his talk I was thinking how I could combine my love of Roman sites in Scotland with passages from the books to create something that people might be interested in.

Jenny Todd, from Canongate, gave us an insight into how e-books and the internet are changing the publishing industry's whole approach to marketing, with the emphasis on the above video promos, but independent bookseller Rosamund de la Hey and Birlin marketing boss Jan Rutherford made the case for the old-fashioned virtues of getting out there and meeting your customers.

Authors Sara Sheridan, Barry Hutchison and Janet Paisley used their own experiences to prove that there are a host of opportunities for writers beyond books if they'd only get out there and look for them. Everything from writing for TV, radio, the theatre, ghost-writing and hosting individual corporate events with a unique twist.

And finally, Aly Barr from Creative Scotland, Caitrin Armstrong, of the SBT and Borders Book Festival and Booknation boss Alistair Moffat talked about how help and support for writers is just an e-mail away.

So what did I learn? Firstly that its not just enough to write. You have to be proactive, both in your self-promotion and seeking out opportunities. Secondly that you have to be innovative and use every technological tool at your disposal. And thirdly, that with all the dynamism, energy and talent on display it's clear that Scotland's literary world is in good health, good heart and in pretty good shape to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

E-books, pricing and the end of the world as we know it?

Like everybody else involved with writing and publishing, the subject of e-books has been on my mind. Kindle was the best selling Christmas product on Amazon and more and more people I know seem to be buying e-readers of one sort or another. It's not something I plan to do myself. Mainly because I like proper books. A book for me is a treasure, to be kept for a lifetime and cherished, picked up and read at leisure. Some of them are works of art. It gives me pleasure to own books. I don't see owning a computer file on Kindle ever coming close to that feeling.

On the other hand, books, all kinds of books, are my future, so there's no way I'm going to be able to ignore what's happening.

It was brought home to me when I got my last review for Hero of Rome on Amazon. The reviewer loved the book, but he gave it only four stars because he thought the price was too high on Kindle. Just to ram the point home he got it out of the library instead and tagged it as a lost sale.

I took a look at the comments after some learned American was pontificating on his blog the other day about the future of publishing and if writers could ever be good publishers. His answer seemed to be a resounding No. It seemed a fair question to ask, and a reasonable answer, but just about every comment was on the subject of rip-off pricing of e-books.

Hero of Rome retails at £9.30 on Kindle. Caligula and Claudius just below a fiver. Now, you could argue, fairly, that the price differential is justified because Hero is pretty new and the others have been out for a couple of years. What's more difficult to justify is the differential between the e-book and the print version. A huge amount of investment goes into the printed edition (printing costs, cover design, paper etc.) whereas, and please don't quote me on this, as I understand it an e-book is about a 1MB file that is uploaded and needs a bit of editing. Then again, I doubt that the publishers make much of a profit from each copy of the print version, so there's also an argument that they're perfectly entitled to make a bit more on the electronic version.

The e-book anarchist movement seems to be of the opinion that no e-book should cost more than £1, and you'll find that most of those in the Kindle top 20 are in that price range, many of them by self-published authors who are doing a great job of marketing their books and are getting the lion's share of the price back in profit. That's fine and I don't grudge any writer a penny of what they earn. What worries me is that if Corgi or Bantam are forced to reduce the prices of my books to £1 or less and e-books take over the world, they won't make a profit, there'll be no decent advances, which are already few and far between, and fewer high quality, properly edited, really good books. - oh, and I won't make a living.

So what's the answer? Some sort of compromise probably. But the honest one is that I've no idea. The problem is that neither has anyone else.