Out of Africa with Ruth Harris

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Yeah, I’m still here, contrary to appearances.

I said in my last post I thought the worst of the internet issues here in West Africa were over and I had high hopes of getting back to some semi-regular blogging. That was in January…

The thing is, life in any “third world” country is a constant triumph of hope over experience. In a desperately poor country like The Gambia hope is often all people have as they go about the daily grind of subsistence living, where soup kitchens and state hand-outs and homeless shelters are unknown.

Which is a constant reminder to me of how lucky I am here. I eat at least once every day, have a tap in the yard, semi-reliable electric and internet, and no heating bills. I have my dream job as a writer, have fulfilled my childhood dream of living in a mud hut in Africa, and am daily reminded, by the company of some of the poorest but happiest children on the planet, what really matters in life.

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Okay, so my workstation might not be everyone’s idea of comfort, but a rusting iron door propped up on a plastic oil drum and the remains of a table does the job. The mosquito swatter doubles as a fan and the lamp does a fine job when the frequent pwercuts plunge us into darkness each evening. Seriously, what more does one need to be a writer?

And life here appears to have just got better, with the final upgrades and repairs to the new ACE (African Coast-Europe) subterranean internet cable, which means (hopefully) some internet stability at last.

To celebrate, I’m back with the second MWi post of the year, and with a guest who doesn’t know she’s here yet, but I’m sure won’t mind my blatant act of piracy in stealing her own blog post from yesterday (which I just read an hour ago) and presenting it here in full.

Ruth Harris is an internationally-acclaimed million-selling author who lives in New York — a lifestyle about as far removed from the reality of Africa as you can get. Yet she wrote a book set here on the dark continent (and kindle gifted a copy to e when it was released – thanks, Ruth!). The novel is called Zuri.

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I meant to have reviewed it here way back, but the realities of life got in the way, as usual. Then I saw Ruth’s latest post on her blog, about how she came to write Zuri, and just knew I had to repost it here.

Normally I’d email and ask permission first, but we’re in different time zones and chances are by the time Ruth got the message and responded I’d have lost my net connection again, and then something else would crop up to distract me. So I’m going to risk a New York law suit and paste now, ask later

Romance and an accidental collision.

Romance as a category has shown its strength over the decades as it evolved from the early days of the nurse romance—pretty nurse Patricia wins handsome Dr. Phillips—through the “bodice rippers” of the Eighties to the many sub-genres that exist today including, of course, the steamy erotic romances descending from 50 Shades.

No matter the sub-genre, there always seems to be room for further expansion and an eager audience willing to follow writers wherever our imaginations take us. To pirates and pirate ships, to the Middle Ages, Regency England, and the settling of the American West. Wherever there are people, people can—and will—fall in love.  We want to write about them and readers love to read about them.

ZURI—the word means “beautiful” in Swahili—is a romance with an unusual setting: an animal orphanage named Kihali located in Africa. The initial idea for the book was the product of an accidental collision.

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Out Of Africa, set in Kenya in the early 1920’s and starring Meryl Streep as the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen, and the young, golden Robert Redford as a white hunter, is a grand romance—and one of my favorite movies. I watch it every now and then and had just seen it again when, while casually flipping thru TV channels one evening, I happened to see a clip of a baby rhino. I was blown away by the little rhino’s appeal and gracefulness.

Baby animals never fail but a rhino? Could a baby rhino actually be adorable? Yes, indeed. Very much so.

I was also aware via newspaper and internet articles that poaching had become an extremely lucrative international crime. The slaughter of rhinos and elephants was decimating the wildlife populations of Africa to the point where they are now endangered species. Between the glamor of Africa, the vulnerability and appeal of helpless animals and the sweeping Streep-Redford romance, the germ for the book was firmly planted.

The need for research was obvious. I had to find out about the people involved in the dangerous work of animal rescue and protection, the newest scientific discoveries in animal communication as more and more is learned about their high intelligence, the gory reality of poaching and the ruthless criminal gangs who profit from its bloody endeavors.

Then there were the details of rhino husbandry and veterinary, the amazing work being done by African animal orphanages, the risks involved in wildlife care, the details of rhino and elephant behavior—Zuri, the orphaned baby rhino who is the story’s heroine, meets elephant and other animal friends at Kihali. I also needed to find out about the local language, Swahili, Kenyan cuisine & wedding rituals—and I needed to use my research in a way that fit in naturally with the narrative flow of the book.

The research was fascinating. Did you know that the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons? Or that rhino horn—it’s actually keratin, the same material found in feathers and nails—is thought to cure cancer, maintain sexual vigor and is considered a miracle medicine in Asia, although it is, in fact, of zero medical value? The price of rhino horn, driven by demand in booming Asian economies, is now more expensive than gold as is the ivory from elephant tusks, used not for “medicinal” purposes but to make carved trinkets.

Of course, in a romance, a love story is crucial. Therefore: Renny Kudrow, the sexy scientist and expert in animal communication, who is the moody Alpha hero. Renny is the Director of Kihali and Starlite Higgins is his newly-hired vet, a talented doctor who hides a horrifying secret. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Starlite panics and almost causes Zuri’s rescue to fail. The two who must work together to save Zuri and the other animals in their care must also work their way through their initial very rough beginning to a much-deserved Happily Ever After ending.

By the time I finished writing ZURI, I thought of the book as romance in its broadest sense, meaning love of beauty, love of nature, love of animals, and, of course, the romantic and transformative power of human love.

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Thanks in advance for letting me post that here, Ruth. It’s a great book and one I’d recommend to all. I especially love that cover!

Ruth’s blog is here. Ruth also posts regularly over at Anne R. Allen’s blog here.

In my part of Africa rhinos and elephants and the like are in short supply (we have some great hippos and crocs, though). There are wildlife parks here, and a “proper” safari park in neighbouring Senegal, but regular readers will know it’s the children of Africa that are why I’m here.

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More on my young friends in future posts.

But here to end with something Ruth mentioned above: the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons. And just like with drugs and weapons, the trade in ivory and other animal parts (sharks’ fins, tigers’ testicle, seal fur, etc) impacts on human lives as well as the animals that are brutally and needlessly slaughtered.

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Before.

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After.

Whether it’s the suffering of innocent doe-eyed animals, or innocent bright-eyed children, that upsets you, remember there’s aways something you can do to help.

The Hundred Year Old Man That Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared.

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No, the title isn’t a personal reference. While I have sort of disappeared these past few months I didn’t climb out of any window to do so. And contrary to popular opinion I’ve still got a long way to go before my telegram from the Queen. The picture above was just last year.

But sometimes I look like it and feel like it. And it’s fighting this pointless battle between indie and trad publishing that is so wearisome and adds years to one’s appearance while knocking those same years off one’s life expectancy.

Back in 2009-10 it was easy to see why the brother/sisterhood of writers had divided into rival camps. On the one hand we had the trad published authors who had been both good and lucky enough to get a publishing contract. On the other we had the new breed of indie authors taking advantage of Amazon’s new self-publishing option and many, by all accounts, were doing rather well at it.

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But right from the start it became a Them and Us  issue, and while there were valid points being made by both sides, the self-appointed spokesmen for the warring factions were determined to demonize the opposition. The trad publishers hated ebooks and the indie upstarts publishing them, and the indies hated trad publishing and agents, the sole function of whom was to exploit authors.

Four years on and, while the publishing world has changed beyond all recognition, the song remains the same. Trad publishers hate ebooks and the indie upstarts publishing them, and indies hate trad publishing and agents, who have one role in life: to exploit writers.
And it seems many people still seriously believe that, despite the fact it wasn’t true in 2009 and isn’t true now.

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One of the reasons I did my centenarian disappearing act lately was the continuing decline of the internet service here in sunny West Africa. At the end of 2011 had high hopes that the new 4G service being heralded here would mean in 2012 I could bring to fruition the many publishing projects slowly simmering away.

In a triumph of hope over experience I pushed ahead with some ambitious projects reliant on the promised improvements in the net here only to be reminded why GMT here means not Greenwich Mean Time but Gambian Maybe Time.

Far too many projects ground to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace progress.

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At the end of 2012 light appeared at the end of the tunnel. The second tranche of a submarine cable (African Coast-Europe, or ACE) went live, theoretically connecting The Gambia and neighbouring West Africa countries directly to Europe and thereby the rest of the world.

Well, it did indeed go live and for about a week over Christmas we had an internet service which, while still woefully inadequate by First World standards, was far superior to what we had before. Then everything returned to how it was, and we start 2013 much as we started 2012, with high hopes tempered by experience.

Having proven they can deliver, the hope now is there are just a few technical issues to resolve and the new ACE cable will bring the promised improvement in West Africa’s internet access to the rest of the world.

That should be hoped for by all, and not just for my convenience.

As I’ve said many times before here on MWi, we writers lucky enough to be fluent in the English language have a huge advantage over authors who are not. English remains the lingua franca of the world. And as the ebook revolution continues to reach the furthest flung corners of the globe the prospects for authors writing in English grow daily.

A reminder: here in West Africa alone there are more English speakers than the entire population of the United States. As developments like the ACE take hold and bring reliable net to the Third World, and as cheap tablets (not ridiculously fancy iPads, but affordable tablets with prices well below $50) become widespread these hitherto untapped markets will become a key part of the successful author’s readership base.

And let’s not forget the First World. Have a guess at what the second most spoken language is in Sweden. Or the Netherlands. Or Finland, or Norway, or pretty much every country in Europe. The answer is English.

Now try the same test in pretty much any developed or developing country. You get the same answer.

There are exceptions. Brazil, for example, has never embraced English as a second language in the way most countries have. Unless you can get your books translated to Portuguese then don’t expect too many sales from that huge country. But most of the rest of the world is a readership waiting to be discovered.

My focus for this blog for 2013, internet delivery permitting, will be exploring the international ebook scene and examining why the them and us dichotomy between trad published and indie writers is doing very few of us any good. I won’t promise any set dates for blogging, because my net has its own agenda, but hopefully the ACE, once the teething problems are sorted, will let me be a bit more consistent.

Meanwhile, what of that bizarre title for this post?

For those of you unfamiliar it is a book by Jonas Jonasson that is currently topping the charts on amazon uk. I’m reading it at the moment, and have to say it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Take this excerpt.

I was abandoned by my mother, denied by my father — and I’m as intelligent s a sack of potatoes. I haven’t done any useful work in all my life, just lived on what I inherited from my father, and I have not had a single wise thought.

No, not George Bush. Herbert Einstein. Herbert has a small but amusing role in the story of a centenarian Swede who on his 100th birthday climbed out of the window and disappeared.

Hundraåringen_som_klev_ut_genom_fönstret_och_försvannI commend the book to you. And not just because it’s available for 20p on amazon uk.

Yes, you read right. In fact over Christmas as many as seventeen of the top twenty best-selling ebooks on Amazon have been priced under a pound, and most of them are 20p. That’s about thirty cents to you guys across the pond. As I write this on New Year’s Day four of the top five best-selling ebooks are 20p. The other is 99p.

In the UK bargain books are still much sought after. Bear that in mind when you price your ebooks on amazon uk from across the pond. And bear in mind the tax Amazon will add to the price. If you price your ebook at £1.99 it will appear on sale at £2.05. For a £1.99 list price to the reader you actually need to list on Amazon at £1.93.

Jonasson’s book was originally a massive hit in Sweden, and is now an international hit thanks to being translated into English, with three million sales behind it long before Amazon started giving it away at 20p, price-matching Sony.

It’s one of those delightful stories told by a monotone narrator at a monotone pace that is almost entirely tell over show, but that nonetheless defies you to put it down. The tale of a bumbling Swede who somehow manages to travel the world, personally befriending the likes of Franco, Truman, Churchill and Stalin along the way. Oh, and did I mention helping develop the A-Bomb? It’s a romp through world history with a lot of fact and keen observations thrown in amid the delightful fantasy woven by the author, the improbably named Jonas Jonasson.

Of course at 20p / 30c it’s pretty close to being given away. What chance relatively obscure indie authors with their freebies in Select when huge names like Jonasson are being given away all but free?

That debate is for another day.

But I end here today with news of a free book by a not so obscure indie author. Blogging guru Anne R. Allen’s latest release, No Place Like Home, is free on Amazon for the next few days.

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It’s the fourth in the delightful Camilla Randall Mysteries series, and not to be missed!

Free on amazon.com here: http://www.amazon.com/Place-Like-Home-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00AHRWA0Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8

Free on amazon.co.uk here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Place-Like-Home-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00AHRWA0Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1357035499&sr=1-1

Treat yourself!

No Place Like Home was the final MWiDP release of 2012. The first release of 2013, the long awaited St. Mallory’s Forever! is having the finishing touches put to it at this very moment and should be live later this month.

Happy New Year!

 

 

How To be A Publisher In the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity

So it’s finally happened. No, not the book. Keep up!

That’s happened too, of course.

But even more exciting than that! I now have a reliable electric supply AND a reliable internet connection.

No, I can’t believe it either.

The components for the solar power arrived last month (just in time for the rainy season) and this past few days I finally took delivery of a 4G internet service. Yep, that’s me on the far left

Of course it’s not 4G by Western standards. But by local African standards, and compared to last week,  it’s simply incredible. And once the novelty of being able to listen to radio and watch youtube videos wears off I’ll have no more excuses for my haphazard postings here on MWi, and my poor communications generally.

Fact is my old ISP service had deteriorated to the extent that I’ve only been able to get into my own blog two or three times a month. To all those who commented recently and were seemingly ignore, it wasn’t deliberate.

So be warned. I’m back, and with lost time to make up!

And we’ll start right here by announcing what you probably all knew already, that How To Be A Writer In The E-Age finally went live this past week and is even now storming the Amazon charts.

Check it out on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk..

It will be available on other platforms shortly, and the POD release is imminent too.

Chasing this we have Paul Dillon’s The Magic In the Receiver (any day now) and the first of  Terry Galanoy’s Bloodgold series.

And no, we haven’t forgotten our very own Rapunzel or St. Mallory’s, but both fell foul of the constant problems with electricity and net here. Expect to see them all in the near future, as well as a resumption of my observations on the publishing and writing scene and some more insights into my life here in West Africa!

Okay, short and brief this time, but don’t get used to it. I’ll be back to normal next post!

Trans-Atlantic Team-Up – Exploring Discoverability

Buzzwords. What did we do before they were invented? Or maybe they’ve always been with us, just under a different name.

One thing’s for sure – the buzzword of the day among indie authors is “discoverability”.  The art of getting noticed. It’s not a new word, created in the epublishing revolutionm though looking about you you might think indie authors created the concept.

Actually it’s been around since forever.

But in the world of digital book selling it’s never been more important.

The e-charts get ever more competitive, and while we still love to read about the success stories of new and unknown authors beating the odds and winning the Amazon lottery, the simple fact is it’s getting harder and harder. By the day. Even for established authors with a brand and a loyal readership base.

As ebooks become more acceptable there are tons more indie authors out there competing for the attention of a limited number of ebook readers. Even by the most optimistic estimates only 25% of buyers are buying ebooks – print still has 75% of the market. And while the e-shelves may be infinite, the number of books that will be bought is not.

Most importantly, the once indie-friendly e-charts are suddenly not so indie-friendly after all.

Getting noticed is hard, and getting noticed beyond your home shores is harder still.

One advantage we still have as indies is the ability to be nimble. To take risks. To experiment. To look at new ways of becoming discoverable, and then trying them out.

Say hello to the Trans-Atlantic Team-Up.

Yes, it’s an experiment. Yes, it may fail abysmally. It may stall this year and take-off next year. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure: Nothing ventured…

So we figured, supposing we took a good seller from the UK doing less well in the US, and a good seller in the US not doing so well in the UK, and put them together in one volume? And then released it both sides of the Atlantic, so fans of author A would see author B’s work, and fans of author B would see author A’s work?

Box-Sets are commonplace ways of getting one author’s books “doubled up” to increase exposure, and exchanging links and recommending one another’s books is also a commonplace method of cross-promotion among indi9e authors. So why not take it to the logical next step?

We approached our in-house cover-designer Athanasios and put the idea to him. Back came a design we loved. A simple, yet elegant frame, whereby any two separate novels could be presented in one volume.

For the launch we chose Tom Winton’s stunning social-justice thriller, The Last American Martyr, and the first of our Rose Red crime thrillers, Snow White.

Yes, both are also still available as individual books, so this is very much a way of increasing exposure for both authors and both titles, while offering readers value for money.

This, the  first of the Trans-Atlantic Team-Up series, has just gone live on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, and will be appearing on other platforms very shortly.

Other titles will follow soon. Anyone interested in having their book(s) paired with an author across the ocean should get in contact and we’ll see what we can do.

 

 

The State of Play in the UK: An Update – and Merry Christmas!

Okay, so I’ve been forced out of the cave by events. Which is ironic given it’s been other events that have kept me in seclusion. Namely local conditions here in sunny West Africa, which have conspired against my best laid plans.

But not for long. If all goes to plan I will be solar powered by the end of the month.!

Meanwhile, life has been chugging along between power-cuts. Next month sees MWiDP launch a new How To guide for writers. One with a difference, of course, as the title might suggest.

Co-written by award-winning blogging guru Anne R. Allen and NYT best-selling author Catherine Ryan Hyde, this is a How To with a difference, and will be updated every six months to ensure it’s always up to date. More details on this in coming weeks. Here just to say that every six months might not be enough.

For instance, take this line from the Introduction to the new book, written by our very own Saffi:

The only certainty is that there is no certainty. The publishing world is changing daily. What was established fact yesterday can be questionable today and history tomorrow. 

This past month has proven that to be very timely.

A short while ago I wrote a post on The State of Play in the UK – an overview of the British ebook market and what the near-future holds for those writers targeting the home of the English language. Given recent totally unpredictable developments in the UK I’ve been inundated with emails asking how I see the Brit’ ebook scene now.

At the time I was optimistic (aren’t I always?) that while the future of ebook Britain was bright, Amazon was facing the prospect of being eclipsed by the burgeoning Kobo which had teamed up with UK retailer W.H. Smith, and there was the much rumored partnership between Barnes & Noble and Waterstone’s, which would have brought the nook to Britain.

A formal announcement was expected at the London Book Fair in April, but the Book Fair came and went with no news.

In fact, unbeknownst to all but the privileged few, Barnes & Noble was simultaneously in negotiations with Microsoft, and shortly after the LBF an official partnership was announced between Barnes & Noble and Microsoft.

A deal that left Waterstone’s out in the cold, the nook plans for international expansion on hold, and my predictions for the UK ebook market seriously holed.

Suddenly it seemed like Kobo had an open goal for the British ebook market.

W.H. Smith is the second-largest bookseller in the UK, with stores in pretty much every major town, and countless stores in the big cities. A chain that, because it also sells stationary, DVDs, music, games and newspapers, gets far more footfall than Waterstone’s.

And Kobo was busy installing wi-fi kiosks and staff to promote the Kobo e-readers and tablet, while selling ebooks through the W.H. Smith ebook store it operates. With Kobo’s black and white e-readers significantly cheaper than the Kindles, and with Kobo’s tablet  (which is actually cheaper than Amazon’s best b&w device) facing no competition from the KindleFire, which remains unavailable outside the USA, it looked like Kobo was a sure-fire winner in the race for ebook supremacy.

Then came another bolt from the blue, just weeks after the B&N-Microsoft deal, as Amazon and Waterstone’s announced a partnership, in a move that left observers stunned. Me included.

On the list of the top one million least likely things ever to happen this was number one million and one. I honestly checked the date of the report when I first read this, thinking it must have been an April 1st post turned up late.

Waterstone’s boss James Daunt had previously been widely reported as comparing Amazon to Satan, and while that was probably wildly exaggerated by the media there’s no question Amazon and Waterstone’s were business rivals, not allies.  Observers compared the move to letting the fox into the hen-house. Of mortgaging Waterstone’s future for short-term gain. Some suggested it was the beginning of the end for Waterstone’s.

Amazon and Waterstone’s in partnership? You couldn’t make it up.

Not here to analyze the numerous unverified guesses as to what’s in it for Waterstone’s. The simple fact is we don’t know (and may never know) the detail of the deal. But what is clear is that Waterstone’s will now be selling the Kindle in its 300 stores across the UK.

True, the Kindle is already available in supermarkets and electronic goods stores in the UK, but there it’s just another gadget. One among many, easily passed by.

But for the Kindle to be sold in Britain’s leading bookstore gives Amazon unprecedented access to its prime target audience – book buyers. Would the nook ever have taken off were it not for the Barnes & Noble bricks and mortar stores?

Waterstone’s chief James Daunt is neither stupid nor suicidal (I’ve been following his moves closely since he took over running the company last year and have been impressed with his objectives, if not yet his achievements), and we have to assume there are major benefits to be accrued by Waterstone’s from selling the Kindle and directing customers to the Kindle UK ebook store.

Obviously Waterstone’s will make money on the sale of the device. But how will Waterstone’s make money once the customer leaves the store and buys ebooks from their own home? Possibly the Kindles sold will be linked to Waterstone’s in some way (perhaps getting the buyer to sign up a Kindle account whilst in store) and the company will receive a commission on future sales through that account.

What will happen to Waterstone’s own ebook store is equally unclear. At the moment Waterstone’s ebook store is a not insignificant player in the UK market (it still brings the Saffina Desforges brand significant revenue each quarter, although very few indies are there) and presumably will continue to operate. No doubt the Waterstone’s store will be able to pick up trade from customers who prefer not to use Amazon, and those who have  a device other than the Kindle.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Amazon will take over running the Waterstone’s store in the same way as Kobo now run the W.H. Smith ebook store.  That would be an impressive move by Daunt. But that’s pure speculation.

Reports suggest Waterstone’s will be investing serious money (“tens of millions”) into upgrading all the UK stores with wi-fi kiosks and trained staff. Rather like rival Kobo is doing with W.H. Smith, in fact, and as Barnes & Noble has been doing very successfully with the nook. I suspect this will be financed by Amazon. The Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, who owns Waterstone’s, may well have that kind of money to splash around, but impossible to see how it could be recouped, unless there is a commission on future ebook sales as per the possible scenario above.

But whoever is footing the bill, it looks like full steam ahead to upgrade the Waterstone’s bricks and mortar stores this autumn / fall and be in a position to market the Kindle in-store before Christmas.

For Waterstone’s, I suspect this deal was its last hope of competing in the digital future.  An offer it couldn’t afford to refuse. Waterstone’s was way behind with its digital strategy, despite running the second largest ebook store in the country. To understand just how far behind, consider this:

Last year, as the UK’s biggest-selling indie author and at number two in the Kindle store and just launching on Waterstone’s ebooks, we approached Saffi’s local Waterstone’s branch to do some promo.

The manager looked blank. “We have an ebook store?”

By late summer we were riding high in the Waterstone’s ebook charts, with two books simultaneously in the top ten, and kept off the number one spot only by the Steve Jobs biography soaring when Jobs died. We were the top most searched-for name in Waterstone’s ebooks. We approached a bigger Waterstone’s store in the hope of getting some media interest.

“We have an ebook store?”

By spring 2012 we were officially the biggest-selling indie author of the previous year, and Sugar & Spice was officially the eleventh biggest-selling ebook in the country for 2011.

Ever the optimist we approached a major Waterstone’s city bookshop.

“We have an ebooks store?”

Yet James Daunt clearly sees and understands that digital is the future. It’s just that, for whatever reason, he’s been slow to get the company’s ethos changed.

Still the optimist, I believe Daunt has joined with Amazon for the right reasons, and that Amazon will play this fairly.

Yes, it would be very easy for Amazon to use its presence in the heart of its biggest print-books rival to undermine Waterstone’s. Yes, it could easily take Waterstone’s down the Borders route, and then buy up the stores and all that prime real estate for a pittance, from its petty cash.

But as things stand Amazon has the perfect deal. It will have bricks and mortar ebook presence across the UK in the best possible way – in the country’s leading book-store. It will be able to go head to head with Kobo, its only serious rival on the international scene.

And while buyers will have to pay full VAT at UK rates on the Kindle devices sold through Waterstone’s, Amazon will continue to supply ebooks via Luxembourg at a fraction of that rate (just 3%), giving it a continuing price advantage over Kobo and all other rival sellers. If Amazon were indeed to run the Waterstone’s store that would give Waterstone’s a huge advantage over Kobo-W.H. Smith.

Whatever the detail, Amazon gets the best of both worlds, just as it always has. Bricks and mortar presence and off-shore tax advantages. But at a price – the survival of Waterstone’s as an independent nationwide book-store chain. If Waterstone’s fails Amazon would lose its bricks and mortar presence or have to take over the stores and lose the tax advantage. A symbiotic relationship unprecedented in publishing history.

What does this mean for the future of publishing in Britain?

Long term, that’s anyone’s guess. I just hope I’m right and Waterstone’s will survive.

Short term it means that the Christmas/New Year season 2012/13 is going to be UK publishing’s answer to the Rumble in the Jungle. The biggest booksellers and ebook players in  the country will be going head to head this winter for the hearts and minds of the British book-lover, both intent on converting the UK to e-reading.

It’s going to be an ebook bonanza for those of us lucky enough to have our ebooks in the right place at the right time. The clock is ticking. Select fans may want to reconsider their options.

Who will win? .

At the moment my money is on Kobo. Kobo is already way ahead with its plans for in-store facilities, potentially reaches a much wider audience (i.e. not just book-store shoppers), and has cheaper e-readers than Amazon. Most importantly it has a cheap tablet available. And it’s being sold in the store that sells magazines. Wonderful to read on a tablet. A total disaster on the Kindle.

If Amazon can get its act together and launch the KindleFire in the UK (promised since January but still no sign) then Amazon’s market supremacy will probably continue. Without a tablet to compete then Amazon faces losing its dominant position in the UK despite the Waterstone’s deal, just as it has now taken second place to Kobo in Canada.

Whoever the winner is in the retail stakes, it’s a win-win for us all as writers and self-publishers, with huge new market-share being opened up.

Make the most of it. It’s going to be a great Christmas.

Behind The Mosquito Net – The Jet-Set Life of a Best-Selling Author.

The more observant among you will have noticed a distinct lack of posts recently on MWi.

Simple fact is I’ve been rather preoccupied sorting my residential status here in sunny West Africa, having come far too close to being deported as an illegal immigrant.

There’s a common misconception among many in the First World that only rich countries need immigration controls, to keep the nasty foreigners at bay, but it’s fine for us “rich westerners” to just jump on a plane and go where we wish. That our dollars, pounds and euros mean we are above local laws and can travel and live wherever we choose. The reality is rather different. All countries have immigration laws, and they all enforce them rigorously.

Due to technical glitches this end my annual visa renewal took much longer to sort than usual, and the past month has been endless trips to and from the tiny Gambian capital trying to coincide my visits with no powercuts so the immigration authorities could resolve a very simple issue with my resident alien permit.

All fixed eventually, but there were times it looked like I might have had to leave and return to civilization. While I will be doing just that this summer, to escape the worst of the rainy season (impossible to use the laptop here with the electrical storms) and sort business matters, the idea of leaving my little piece of paradise for any length of time was a depressing prospect.

Which brought to mind the oft-asked questions about what my life here is really like.

Do I really live in a mud hut surrounded by crocodiles and hippos, with neither running water nor sanitation? Do I really live close to golden beaches and palm trees, and plush hotels and swimming pools and well-stocked bars, yet rarely visit?

The answer is sort of, to all of them. And by the way, those crocs are just a few miles from here.

In fact I have three homes here in The Gambia. All rented, and all local quality. Yes, there are wonderful European-standard properties available, especially in the tourist zone, and for a fraction of Europe’s costs one could live in luxury here, no question.

But material wealth and goods hold little interest, and the idea of living in such needless splendour while people around me have no running water or electricity and bring up families on less than a dollar a day, is quite anathema.

I rent three homes to facilitate my travel around the country for my various community projects.  There are very few roads worthy of the name (the country has no railway system and until two years ago just one set of traffic-lights) and travel over even short distances can be arduous and time-consuming. On a good day.

Individual houses are a luxury of the rich here, and most people live in “compounds” usually comprising two or three rooms as part of a block, with shared sanitation and cooking facilities.

Below is one of  “my” compounds. It’s probably no bigger than most people’s back yards in the USA, but here there are eight families in situ, comprising over thirty persons. I’d rate my residence as middle-class.

My little “home” is the door to the right with the blue walls. The one with the collapsing roof. Two rooms, which for one person is a decadent luxury, but I do need my workspace.

As you can see from the sandy ground, we’re on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and most roads are little more than sand tracks.  It hasn’t rained here since end September, and none is expected before late June. Despite which there is a surprising amount of greenery. Trees here have deep roots and there is no shortage of underground water supply at this stage. Whether the water can meet the countries needs as the population grows and development continues remains to be seen.

My office is of course the height of hi-tech efficiency. The desk is an old, rusting metal gate precariously balanced. Mosquito swatter, lamp and Kindle are essential tools of the trade, along with the laptop and a decent keyboard. The lap-top cooler is actually a couple of egg-trays. Very effective.

Air conditioning? Of course. It’s that hole in the wall that masquerades as a window.

My other furnishings comprise an equally delapidated swivel chair, a roll-up mattress I can carry to each home as needed, a mosquito net, and a couple of locally made seats which look a lot more comfortabe than they are.

No TV, of course, although TVs are quite common (all the junk TVs from Europe find their way to Africa – and some even work!), and freeview satellite dishes are relatively cheap. Relatively being relative to Europe or the USA. When you earn local wages such things are still an unotainable luxury for most here. And I’m not sure CNN 24/7 is a luxury in any circumstances.

In theory we have electricity, but rarely a day passes without a powercut – often several – and outside of the “Kombos” (the development area) electricity and water, are rationed – 9am till 2pm and 7pm till midnight. That’s where electricity and water are available at all. Many people don’t have any electric supply (and couldn’t afford to use if they did – it costs me about a dollar a day).

Many areas are still reliant on wells, but communal taps are spreading. Up until a year ago we had to walk a quarter mile to the communal tap, shared between the entire village, fill containers and cart them back for the day’s requirements.

As a European in these temperatures (30C / 90F average – often a lot higher) several showers a day is unavoidable, so in a rare moment of self-indulgence I paid to have water brought to the compound. About a year’s income for local people. No suprise then that there was a big party when the tap finally arrived.

So now we have our own water supply.  Of course, that only gets the water as far as the premises. You still need to fill one of those containers and lug the water to where needed.

The shower, for instance.

If you want a warm shower just leave the bucket of water in the sun for an hour or so.  By midday the ground has anyway warmed up such that the water comes out of the tap pretty tepid. But overnight the ground cools and the first shower of the day can be quite a wake-up experience!

One of the reasons I chose this particular compound was the luxury toilet. Most latrines here are simply holes in thr ground. Here my predecessors somehow came across a western style u-bend basin, positioned over said hole in the ground. Unparalleled luxury! Of course you still need to lug the bucket of water from the tap to flush.

Both shower and toilet are beneath the shade of a huge mango tree. Which can be quite an unnerving experience in the post-summer months whern the mangoes are ripe and liable to fall at any moment. Mangoes are incredibly dense and heavy for their size and a lot more dangerous than falling coconuts!

Needless to say at night the mosquitos swarm in vast numbers in the hope some foolish European will expose soft pale flesh for their delectation.

Of course we also need water for washing.

When the washing machine and dishwasher breakdown we have to do things by hand. No, hold on. We haven’t got a washing machine or dishwasher.  Where would be plumb them in if we had?

And of course we also need water for cooking.

In the event I have an uncontrollable urge for a pizza or fries I can always head off to the tourist zone and spend more on one meal than a family will spend on food all week, but I prefer to live as the locals do. Cooking on charcoal or open fires can be a slow and tortuous process, but always with tasty results.

Here’s one of my lovely neighbours sorting lunch in our communal kitchen.

My second home is not quite so plush.

Could do with a new roof before the rains start.

While it may not be the most comfortable lifestyle, it is always a pleasure to be among people who have more important things to worry about than the latest smartphone, or upgrading their iPad, or whether they need a third car on the drive.

Money can’t buy happiness, and believe it or not a TV, computer games and Barbie dolls are actually not essential to life. Just ask these kids.

Or ask that Mark Williams character.

Of course there are some times when money can be put to good use.

Malaria is the single biggest killer on the African continent, and the single largest cause of infant mortality.  This close to the coast malaria is not quite as prevalent as inland, but still a major threat. But mosquito nets cost more than most people can afford. Nets for babies, like this one, are especially expensive. This one costs the equivalent of a week’s wages for a teacher. About twenty dollars. Ponder that next time you spend twenty bucks on the latest hardback.

As the baby grows out of it the net can be passed on to another child and re-used until beyond repair, which sadly isn’t that long. As for the growing infant – bigger nets cost more, and for children big and small malaria is a risk they live with every day.

Imagine in London or New York, Paris or Perth, being unable to protect your children from the risk of a  fatal disease every night, for the sake of a few dollars. If it’s not malaria there are plenty of other killers to choose from.

One in five babies born on this continent will not live to see their fifth birthday. Most of those deaths will be preventable. Little Ramatoulye, above, has a 20% likelihood of dying in the next five years. In the twenty-first century that’s just not good enough.

My lifestyle here in West Africa may seem far removed from yours in the rich west. But by African standards I live a jet-set life.

Tomorrow I’m off north of the river to follow up on some projects in the outlaying villages. Needless to say my private yacht will be waiting.

Or maybe not. I’ve got other prioroities for my money. Mosquito nets for babies, for instance. So I’ll cross the river as the locals do.

Almost time to roll up the bed, pack the laptop and head off. I leave you with this image of the luxury first-class travel experience that awaits me.

St. Mallory’s Forever! – Coming Soon

Never let is be said we rush out our ebooks prematurely! So much for the Christmas release…

But Easter is looking promising! Maybe.  Anyway, it’s coming soon!

You can check out the story behind the story over at the official St. Mallory’s blog where the latest post is entitled I Jolly Well Don’t Talk Like That!, courtesy of our resident boarder, Charley.

For recent visitors unfamiliar with the St. Mallory’s project, St. Mallory’s Forever! is a four-author collaboration between ourselves and two fantabulous teen writers as per the cover credits. A modern day boarding school series with all the jolly hockey sticks fun of Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton, with some Jennings and Billy Bunter-esque farce thrown in for good measure, but without the stone-age social hang-ups that bedevil those classics of children’s literature.

As befits a modern-day teen novel the story is told through the blogs of the three MCs. For those who can’t wait, here’s a taster.

*

Abby 1: Welcome To My World.

 

Schools are strange places, where strange things happen.

But in an *insert fingered air quotes here* ordinary school, the students leave at the end of the day, and there are a few hours where those buildings are magical. They’re empty, they’re quiet, and they’re free of bossy teachers.

Empty schools are also creepy beyond reason, if you’ve ever been in one at night, but at least you can walk freely down the corridors. Those are the hours during which Behind The Scenes Stuff  happens. That’s when they fix the computers and the lights. Cleaners come and go. Rude graffiti and disgusting stains caused by unmentionable human fluids miraculously disappear. By the time students return in the morning, all the little mysteries they hadn’t quite solved are gone as if they’d never been there at all.

Boarding schools aren’t like that. Sure, there are still cleaners and maintenance teams doing their jobs in the background. And sure, departments don’t talk to each other; errors, clashing events and new rules can be ignored for months before finally surfacing when they reach critical status; and everybody in charge seems determined to make everything twice as complicated as it needs to be. You think state school teachers are bossy? You don’t know the half of it!

But there are always students around in a boarding school. True, they’ll be in their houses, but they still need attention and supervision, and if left alone for a moment, prep will be abandoned and all hell with break loose.

At least, that’s what it’s like at St Mallory’s School for Girls.

How do I know? Because I’m a boarder at St. Mall’s. Three years, now, and I’m just starting the Middle Fifth. The Middle Fifth? Exactly. Unless you’re a boarder too you won’t know what the heck that means. Which is why I’m starting this blog.

I’m just back from the summer hols and I’ve got to tell you I am seriously urinated off (we’re not allowed to swear on the school’s time) at the misconceptions and stereotypes everyone out there in the “real world” has about boarding school girls. It’s not true! Well, some of it’s not, anyway.

You see, there are (advance warning: silly pun coming up!) three schools of thought about girls and boarding schools. First there’s the jolly hockey sticks world of Eleanor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. And yes, you bet we call our school Malory Towers sometimes, when not in earshot of teachers!

Then there’s St. Trinians. Of course we know all the songs! Altogether now, St. Mallory’s, St. Mallory’s Will Never Die! Sadly, real life here at St. Mall’s is nothing like that, though the Head could well be in a man in drag. Hmmm. Now there’s a rumour worth starting…

Finally there’s Harry Potter. I mean, what was JK Rowling thinking of, making Hogwarts a mixed-sex school? She should have got rid of Harry and all those daft boys, made it an all girls’ school with Hermione the star of the show (not that she isn’t anyway –  Hermione rocks!) and she probably would have sold a lot more books and might be rich by now.

Of course, none of these are remotely accurate portrayals of modern boarding school life. Believe it or not we don’t walk around with books on our head and learn how to hire a governess. We don’t run riot in the science labs and make stink-bombs, blow up the school or scare off teachers. And we can’t turn the younger kids into frogs – but don’t tell my little cousins that, because they’re convinced that I can.

So I’ve decided to write this blog and expose what really goes on in a top-notch school like St. Mall’s. The world has a right to know!

I’ll be posting here whenever I can get a moment’s privacy. Not easy in a school with 400 marauding adolescents, hordes of bitter and twisted teachers, and who knows how many other ancillary staff we see but never actually meet – imagine Piccadilly Circus on a busy day and you’re not even half-way there. But I’ll do my best to dish the dirt on everyone and everything, as it happens.

Jolly hockey sticks!

And no, we do not say things like that here, but you were expecting it, right?

Which is why you need to subscribe to my blog. Because everything you thought you knew about girls’ boarding schools is totally and utterly wrong, I promise you.

Yes, even that bit!

 

 

Abby 2:

Chaos, Carnage and Confusion – Travelling Day.

 

They call it a travelling day, but to Abigail Roe (that’s me by the way, just so as you know) it looks more like a traffic jam day. Every parking bay is taken, and a long, straggly line of overstuffed cars trail away out of the courtyard, through the gates and up the long, snaking school drive to vanish among the Sussex hedgerows.

The air thrums with the grumble and snarl of expensive motors (I swear some of them hire a Rolls just for the day, to make a good impression) while frantic parents struggle through the school gates, laden with trunks, suitcases and lumpy carrier bags. Harrods, mostly, although occasionally a Fortnum & Mason bag will put in an appearance. And very occasionally an M&S Finest. You can spot the scholarship girls a mile away!

Bitchy? Moi?  

I was joking. Honest! Actually, when we’re at home our parents go out and do the weekly shop at Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s just like everyone else. But this is the first day back, so everyone is out to make a good impression. Hair coiffured, nails perfectly manicured, uniform all crisp and new and hitherto untouched by human hands. Shoes polished until they positively gleam. Unblemished undies, newly fitted bras that are a tad too big so we can grow into them, and –

“Abby! Abby darling, could you come here for a moment?”

Oh. My. God. Excuse me. Must go. That’s my mother calling.

She never calls me darling at home (wouldn’t dare!) so why in the name of all things sane does she call me it here? If boarding school has that effect on parents, what chance do us poor students stand?

“Coming, Mum!”  *Stretches lips into big happy smile*. Rule number one: never show how embarrassed you are by your parents. No matter what they say or do, or what they’re wearing

Reluctantly I dragged myself from in front of the big oak doors and made my way down to the parking area. Drat! I’d just got prime position on the top step, too. Queen of all I surveyed. Great for spotting old friends arriving, and even better for identifying any potential fags I mean new girls – but more on that later.

I darted down the steps and jinked my way through the oncoming crowds towards Mum’s car. Of course she’s only parked right between a Roller and a top of the range 4X4 with huge wheels and an even bigger back seat, with enough inbuilt games consoles such that you could happily never get out.

No idea what sort of vehicle it is, mind (I’m a girl – knowing car brands is the boys’ equivalent of reading Hello! magazine) but you can be sure it’s never been off-road in its life, and the trip down to sunny Brighton is probably the first time it’s ever been outside the M25.

Oh, did I say sunny? Strike that! I’ve never known first day back to be anything but overcast and dreary, and today’s no exception. I think the guy upstairs is sending us a subliminal message about the term ahead. Gloomy outlook. Storms on the horizon.

“Well, I’d better be off, sweetheart,” said Mum, eyes moist and ready to flood. “I want to get back on the road before the traffic gets too bad,” she managed to finish, her voice breaking slightly.

Oh God, I hate this bit. You know, the “saying goodbye in front of all your friends” bit. Why can’t they have a private “Saying Goodbye Room” where this can be done behind closed doors? Luckily I’m an old hand at this now. I know how to put a brave face on it as we both realise we won’t see each other ever, ever, ever again. Well, for a month or two, anyway.

That’s why Dad and my little sister aren’t invited. Seeing your father in tears is just soooo embarrassing! Little sis’ Ruby is embarrassing too, of course, but for entirely different reasons. Last term Ruby only picked her nose, licked it and the offered it to Matron. No wonder she’s been left at home this time. My sister, I mean, not Matron.

“Will you be alright, Abby?” Mum was asking in that special voice she reserves for such occasions. A typical Mum question. Only one answer is permitted.

“Of course, Mum.” I rolled my eyes theatrically (may as well put my drama lessons to some use!). “I’ve done this before, you know. I’m not a Lower Fourth any more.” *Refrains from spitting to clean my mouth of that reference to the tadpoles of the Lower Fourth now I’m a senior.*

Mum pulled a face, as she does, then flung her arms round me like she was at some theatre audition, hugging me as if this was the end. “I’ll give your love to Daddy when he comes on leave.”

“Mum!” I mock-glared at her, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by the smile tugging at my lips. Daddy? Hello, Mother? I’m fifteen, don’t you know?

“Make sure you write to me,” Mum went on. I want to know all the latest goss’.”

 Goss’? Don’tcha just hate it when parents try and talk cool?

“It’s not the nineteenth century anymore,” I said. “Have you heard of email?”

“Very funny, dear.  You know full well it’s not the same if it hasn’t got a stamp on it. Anyway, Abby, I…”

Uh-oh, here we go. Big rush of emotion. Please God, don’t let any of my friends be watching. I squeezed Mum one last time, then carefully eased her into the driving seat before she could start another round of hugs. “Hi Becky! Just coming!” I shouted at no-one in particular, knowing Mum couldn’t see over the 4×4 she’d parked next to. A last kiss through the wound-down window.

“Gotta go. All my friends are here,” I lied.

Well, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I know blubbing at every little goodbye is part of a mother’s job description, but I’m not six any more, and it’s not a major untruth. I mean, my friends will all be here by now, just not here.

“Toodles!” I shouted. “Gotta scoot!”

And I ran for it, back to the safety of the patio outside the oak doors. I watched as Mum wriggled our large Ford (Now don’t start – I only know it’s a Ford ’cause it says so on the front) out of the parking bay. The great grey beast looked a bit out of place among the smaller, sleeker cars of most other parents, and the palaces-on-wheels of the More-Money-Than-Sense brigade, but my family have always been the practical sort – well, for the most part. 

I snickered as the car squeezed through the iron gates and headed up the road, imagining Mum muttering about how inconsiderately people were parking. Either that, or she’d be cursing the SatNav to Kingdom Come because it was taking a decade and a half to load up the route home.

Mum and I had arrived long before the worst of the rush – previous experience had taught us to avoid the period between three and four o’clock wherever possible – so I trotted back through the main foyer, through the inner courtyard and off across the playing fields back to Marylebone Boarding House. That’s my “home” for the next eon and a half. And while the rest of the house unpacked their belongings, I sat down on the semi-comfy sofa in the house office to watch the rest of the girls arrive.

By the way, if you’re confused about all this “house” business just stick around – I’ll explain it all as I go. You have to understand boarding schools exist in a different world from everything else. If there’s an easy way and a hard way of doing anything, you can be sure the boarding school has chosen the hard way, just to be awkward. For instance, we –

“Hi, Abby! Great to see you again.”

“Hey ho, Don Pedro!” I gave Teresa a welcome hug as she plonked herself down on the sofa next to me. Teresa and I go way back to the Lower Fourth, three years ago. And if you’re trying to work out how I can be in the Middle Fifth now if the Lower Fourth was three years ago, then join the club. Boarding schools have their very own version of the English language, I tell you.

“What’s the damage out there?” Teresa asked in that lovely Spanish accent of hers. Yeah, she’s from Spain, hence the nickname, but I can’t do accents on a blog, so just use your imagination. And yeah, the Spanish accent comes with that perfect olive complexion, long dark hair and huge brown eyes that would make a Labrador jealous. It’s so unfair!

“Chaos as usual,” I said as I watched another girl struggle in with her cases. I gave her a friendly wave. “Good holiday, Sandra?” But Sandra had already barged through the door with her trunks. “I turned back to the Don. “I swear we have more and more people here every year. Any idea how many newbies coming our way this term?”

“Not a clue,” Don Pedro shrugged, adding, “About twelve in the Lower Fourth. One in the Upper – moving over from another school, or something like that. The usual crop for the Lower Fifth … and two for us. One’s a foreigner. Zoo-Anne, or something weird. And there’s a Helen somebody too.”

Hey, don’t ask me how the Don knows all this stuff! But if you want top secret admin info, D.P is your man. So to speak.

“Two newbies with us?” I asked, just in case I’d misheard. It was pretty rare to have new students join the Middle Fifth.

Teresa nodded. “But I don’t know much about them.”

Like I believe that! Not. I’m sure the Don has secret access to the student files.

“I expect Mrs T. will get around to that when they arrive,” Teresa finished, a wry smile on her face.

We sat a minute in silence taking in that first-day-back-at school ambience. You know the one. Everything perfectly polished and spic and span. A place for everything and everything in its place. This time tomorrow it will look like a bomb’s hit it.

“So, ready for yet another mind-numbingly dull hour-long House Meeting?” Don Pedro asked.

“Ready to doze off more like,” I said, and we both exploded into a fit of girlie giggles.

 Let the madness recommence!

Abby 3: Meet The Inma– I Mean, Students.

 

Teresa and I sat by the window for a few more minutes, watching out for familiar faces and snickering every time we saw some poor over-laden father skittering after a gaggle of giggling daughters. However, before long, the Don and I got the fidgets and decided to head for the penthouse suite, as we call our private quarters, to see how many of our fellow inmates had survived the mad crush outside. Up two flights of stairs we went, and onto a long corridor lined with low doors.

 Yes, I did say doors. Discard your medieval mental images of Ye Olde Communal Dorm where twelve teenage girls sleep side by side in a big round room with nothing but a curtain and a tiny chest of drawers between them.

Here in the twenty-first century, we have worked out that people actually need space to store suitcases, clothing and creature comforts. Thus, the invention of the cubicle – or cubie, for short. A bed, a wardrobe, three drawers under the bed, as well as a larger sliding drawer for bedsheets, spare towels and such, a desk with a totally inadequate number of plug sockets and an Ethernet point. And a window with the usual assortment of sill-dwelling spiders, of course.

But I’m wittering.

Amidst all the hugs, squealing and babbled tales of holiday misadventures, Don Pedro spread the news about the new students, and before long all six dorm-mates (that is to say, the six who weren’t still mired in packing or lost at Heathrow airport) were sitting on my bed animatedly discussing the new arrivals.

“Do you remember that awful French girl we had in the Upper Fourth?” the Don asked. “The one who used to bang on all the doors to ask who was in the cubies?”

“Oh yes, how could we ever forget dahling Fleeeur,” Philippa giggled. Pip’s another old hand from the Fourth form, though most of the Lower Fourth are taller than her. She makes up for it though, and I challenge anyone to have a conversation with her and not laugh. “I swear the T-ster nearly had a fit when she found her washing her hair at midnight,” Pip added.

“It was ten to midnight, actually,” said the Don.

“Pedant,” said Pip, pulling a face at her.

“Peasant,” countered Don Pedro, to a round of giggling from the others.

“I’m sure the new girls won’t be that bad,” I said, cutting across the playful bickering. “And, come on, it’ll be nice to see some new faces, right?”

“Too true,” muttered Pip. “I’ll go mad if I have to spend another minute surrounded by your ugly mugs.”

 “Oi!” I did my best impersonation of our surly Deputy Head, Mr Tuftt. “Mind your manners, you scurvy ruffian!”

This, however, only made everyone laugh louder, though not loud enough to drown out the booming voice from below.

 “Middle Fifth!”

 It was Mrs O’Kallaghan, the House Matron. She’s not a very big woman – even I’m taller than her! – but her voice carries like anything, even on the corridors. “Would anyone care to come down and meet the new girls?”

 Despite the phrasing it was an order, not a suggestion.  Matron has this wonderful way of making us think we have options when there is only one choice.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Pip struck the pose we’d used in the play last year (think Superman meets Usain Bolt and you get the idea). No matter how many times we’d burst out laughing at it, batty Miss Cantrip insisted it was perfect for the powerful nature of the line. Personally, I reckon Shakespeare would have choked on his metaphors from laughing so hard if he saw it, but none of us complained.
 Fun Fact: It was also during that year that we’d given Teresa the nickname of Don Pedro, after another of Shakespeare’s characters. What can I say? Aspiring thespians, the lot of us.

And so, in yet another red-faced state of muffled hysterics, we thundered down the stairs and into the house foyer to meet the newest additions to the Middle Fifth of Marylebone House at St. Mallory’s.

 

Helen 1: Stranger In A Strange Land

 

Hey out there, non-existent readers. I’m hoping there’s someone somewhere who’ll be able to tell me I’m not the only one who’s had to go through this. I mean, there are other teachers’ kids out there, aren’t there? But I guess they’re not usually moving to *cue menacing music and clap of thunder* a boarding school.
BTW, I’m new to this whole blogging thing, so don’t yell at me if I do anything wrong. It’s just, I have no-one to talk things through with here, because I don’t know anybody yet, Mum aside. And I’m pretty sure if I try and keep my emotions inside for any longer, I’ll explode, and then there’ll be bits of me splattered all over this fancy-arse building.

To make matters worse (if that were possible) I’m having to write this on a proper computer. You know, sat at a desk with a separate monitor and keyboard, like in the olden days, which means anyone can sneak a look over my shoulder.

 Not that I need worry. The only other person who’s used the computer room so far is a Chinese girl, who’s also new here. I thought about trying to make friends with her, but she’s in the English as a Second Language class, so I’d probably be wasting my time.

She’s obviously on a scholarship if she can’t afford her own laptop. Everyone has them here, except me and China Girl. Mum says she’ll get me one once she gets her first salary in, but that could take forever, so I’ve asked Dad, secretly. Mum will go spare when she finds out (in case you hadn’t worked it out, they hate each other) but what’s she gonna do? Ground me? I’m already grounded just being here.

Living in a school! It’s just so not normal.

Oh yeah, intros. Sorry, Got carried away. My name is Helen Stroud, and I’m fourteen years old. At a normal school, I’d be going into Year 10, but like I say, this is so not normal. Apparently here it’s called Middle Fifth. Until now, I’ve been going to a scuzzy comprehensive school in London that I won’t name for legal reasons (ha, like they could afford lawyers!), because that’s where my mum taught.

All my life I’ve moved schools whenever Mum got a new job, promotion, or whatever. It wasn’t so bad at primary school because I just went to the local one, wherever we moved, but since I got to secondary school age I’ve generally gone to wherever she was teaching. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that (obviously not, unless you’re a teacher’s offspring too), but the only advantage is the lift in the morning. Seriously. And now I actually have to sleep at school too – it’s just like being in prison. And I didn’t do anything wrong!

Okay, the background just so you’re up to speed. About two weeks before term started, Mum announced that she’d got this job at this place called St Mallory’s. I looked it up, only to find it was some posh private boarding school in Brighton.

Brighton? All my friends are in Wandsworth!

As for Boarding School… I thought that only happened in Harry Potter! At least at a normal school we escaped in the afternoon, and had fun at weekends. Now I’m a real-life prisoner of Azkaban. 

Of course I kicked up a fuss and said I’d rather go and stay with Dad in Birmingham than go to a boarding school full of stuck-up snobs with posh accents walking about with books on their heads.

Oops! Not a good move. Even mentioning dad is a hanging offence in our house. Mum went ballistic. I got the full kabonga about how difficult things were for her since Dad walked out on us. As I remember events she chucked him out, but that’s another story.

And then she started telling me about how wonderful this St. Mallory’s place was. Incredible facilities, she said. I’d even be able to learn Latin! Yeah, like that will come in handy buying a ticket on the London underground. Come to that, they don’t even have an underground system in Brighton. I mean, be serious! How can anyone live without the Tube?

Of course, Mum said I was overreacting. Moi? Overreact?  It’s Brighton, for God’s sake! It hasn’t even got a sandy beach. There was no way I was going to any snotty boarding school.

I was all but ready to run away from home when Mum told me about the music facilities. Now that got my attention. Mum being a music teacher an’ all, I’m kind of a natural at music. So maybe this St. Mallory’s place wouldn’t be quite so bad after all.
 So, I said goodbye to everyone (that’s the part I hate) and to my old school (no tears there). Now I’ve swapped my old black skirt, white shirt, black blazer uniform for a kilt, blouse and jumper. Seriously, why do all private schools have a kilt? Is it because they’re expensive and can only be bought from one particular shop? Answers on a postcard please…

And today we finally came to the school.

Well, I say finally but of course Mum had been before, for the interview, but muggings here missed out on the Open Day tour and everything, so apart from the brochure ad the website – which of course are all special effects photography, not real – I had no idea what to expect.

It was madness.

Utter flaming madness! And yes, I do know stronger expletives than that. I’m just being polite, seeing as this is my first blog.

Anyway, the place was massive, bigger than the pictures in the brochure made it look, and all the kids arriving were proper posh with their cars and expensive clothes, as you’d expect. It made me, in my Primark outfit, carrying a suitcase that we got on special offer from Argos, look like a complete tramp. I could almost feel their eyes on me as I walked up to the steps and tried to work out where to go. A snooty-looking girl at the top of the stairs glanced at me once with a face like she was chewing a lemon with added vinegar, but I just  ignored her.

When we got inside, some teachery person explained to me where my dorm was. Ugh, great. Sharing a room with some posh girl. Okay, so it’s not actually a dorm, not like in the films, anyway. And it’s not really sharing. We have these door-partition things which mean we’ve got our own cubicle, kind of, (the walls between them don’t have ceilings) but I can still hear whatever’s going on and it means I won’t be able to play loud music.

Then this teachery person took me on some grand tour. Well, she’s not actually a teacher, as you probably guessed from the adjective. She’s a matron, in fact. Can you believe that? A real-life matron, just like in the films! Talk about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! Still, could be worse. Could be like Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I say, Fag! My shoes need polishing!

And I wish I could show you photos of the music room coz it is to die for, seriously. The range of instruments here alone is worth all the suffering. They’ve got more instruments in their woodwind section alone than my last school had of everything! In fact I’m almost – Oh, sorry. That was Matron at the door, telling me to come and join the others. I’ll have to chase after her because I haven’t a clue how to get anywhere here yet. The school map is about as useful as a chocolate teapot on a hot day.

I’ll explain more later. Unless you’re a posh kid like the girls here, you don’t know what these places are like on the inside. But don’t worry, I’m going to expose the truth about this place. They may have a great music room, but they’re still all snotty-nosed posh brats who think they’re better than us normal folk. Except maybe China Girl, but as she can’t communicate I guess I’m on my own. Helen Stroud vs. St. Mallory’s Posh School For Snooty Girls. Bring it on!

And yeah, you should subscribe, so you don’t miss anything. I may not be very interesting on my own, but my revelations will be, I promise. And if you could comment occasionally just to let me know you’re around I’d appreciate it. I’d hate to think I’m going to all this effort and no-one is reading.

Writing for Pleasure and, Maybe, Profit, but Seriously, Who Cares?

When we planned the launch of our YA imprint this spring our first thoughts were to kick-off with St. Mallory’s Forever!, our contemporary English boarding school series currently in its final stages. We’ll be presenting a preview of the absolutely to die for St. Mall’s cover (by Xtine at Flip City) later this week.

But we decided to pre-empt ourselves and release our first YA novel before the YA imprint launch.

That’s it above, and if you’re thinking that’s a rather bleak looking cover for a YA novel, you’d be right. Our wonderful designer Athanasios had to go against natural instinct and come up with something distinctly un-YA for this book, at our request.

There’a a lovely post over at Maggie Carlise’s blog  http://maggiepublishing.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/the-indie-in-indie-publishing/ about writing for money, and writing for art. Here’s an excerpt:

 If everybody is doing something a certain way, who’s to say it’ll work for me?  What lifts me out of the herd that is everybody else in that scenario?  Isn’t it just as likely (if not more likely) that I won’t find any sort of success in doing things the established way – and I’ll end up devoting a lot of time and energy to something that doesn’t get me great results, and isn’t even interesting to me???  I just don’t want to do that.

My feeling now is:  either I’ll reach a place of success with my writing/publishing…or I won’t.  But if I do things the way I want, the way that feels right to me, the way that reflects my own personal goals and is fun, then no matter what happens financially I’ll feel as if I accomplished something.  Whereas, if I try to do what you’re “supposed” to do, or what the “experts” say to do, and then I fail…it’ll feel like a real failure, like I wasted a lot of time. What I really want is to feel like I accomplished something…something real.  I don’t want to make my decisions based on ephemeral things like money – I really don’t.

This applies to my actual writing too.  I don’t mind at all writing for pure marketability.  Not everything I do has to be artistically pure.  But I need to be clear about what of my writing falls into what category, or I won’t feel good about what I’m doing.  Going along with this:  if I want to privilege the things that are more meaningful and (potentially) less marketable…I’m not going to feel badly about that.  Even if I never sell anything at all.

Maybe there’s a degree of idealism to what I’m saying…but I’m okay with that.

I actually think there’s practicality to it too, though.  When you’re building a business (or a “brand”), you have to be true to yourself, I think.  How else, really, will you stand apart, amidst all the other people with goals similar to yours?  How will you look like somebody with something worth saying (or reading), and not just a follower?

Although we didn’t have self-publishing in mind at the time, the need to be different was always foremost in our minds when we wrote Sugar & Spice. Love it or hate it, no-one could say it was a derivative copy-cat thriller like everything else out there. The very fact that it went where no thriller had gone before made it the book no trad-publisher would risk and the book the British e-reading public enthused over.

With our debut YA novel we took the same approach. This is YA, but not as you know it. About the only thing YA here is the target audience, but we’re not expecting to compete with Twilight or the The Hunger Games in the sales stakes.

Historical coming-of-age literary fiction for YA is not what most people would expect, and nor is the story-line. No zombies, vampires, paranormal fantasies or boy-meets-girl relationships here. No happy-ever-after ending, either.

As the cover images makes clear, this is a Holocaust novel, but one with a difference.

The elevator pitch:

Three children, the oldest twelve, the youngest six, smuggle themselves into Auschwitz in search of their parents.

Will it sell? Probably not. We’re heartened by the early rankings on KIndle UK, but they’re meaningless indicators of things to come.  Do we care? Quite honestly, no. We could have chosen something far more commercial, far more uplifting, and written it in a very different style if sales were our only measure of achievement.

But sometimes it’s nice to do art for art’s sake.

Sometimes, to be true to itself, a story cannot have a happy-ever-after ending. We’re talking about the Holocaust here. The only happy ending is that it’s no longer happening.

Sometimes the success of a book lies not in its future sales, good or bad, but in the mere fact that is has been written at all.

I can’t speak for Saffi, but if Anca’s Story never sells another copy it will still be my proudest achievement.

Art for art’s sake? Yeah, why not?

Anca’s Story is newly released on Kindle US and Kindle UK and will be joining other platforms in the near future.

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I don’t normally do excerpts from our novels, but I’m going to make an exception in this case, for those interested.

We join the children as they have crossed the vast Auschwitz complex, hiding beneath barracks by day, dodging Nazi guards by night, searching for their parents, cold and hunger bringing them to the brink of surrender.

61.

We had, all three of us, fallen asleep in our latest shelter when we were startled to hear the whistle of a locomotive in the distance.  In the dark of the night there had been no opportunity to study our latest view, but the locomotive’s piercing scream introduced us to a new day and with it new terrors.

            Somehow Nicolae was energised by the steam engine’s approach, awakening the boy within that enfeebled skeleton of a child that had for the past three days followed me like a mindless automaton from one hiding place to the next. Clinging, never letting go, of Elone’s hand. 

            Yet now he was aware once more, eyes almost bright, eager to see the train approach.  So thrilled was I by this ostensive recovery that I abandoned caution and allowed all three of us to advance as far forward as we dared, to purchase a view.

            It was evident now we had found the far perimeter of the site, all but adjacent to the glowing chimneys we had spied on our arrival, and as we watched two huge gates were opened across a railway siding that entered the camp just a few hundred metres distant.  As the train crossed the perimeter boundary music, Wagner I would later learn, began broadcasting from loudspeakers hung liberally around the concourse where Nazi guards, Kapos and labourers waited to greet the new arrivals.

            The locomotive ground to a halt, dragging the ophidian cattle trucks shuddering in its wake and I saw Nicolae’s expression change as memories of our own tragic journey were rekindled in his mind.  I wanted to draw him back, to shield him, but he held tight to Elone’s hand. I wanted to pull him to me, but instead we watched, silently mesmerized by the scene of ostensive welcome. 

            As the doors were opened and the passengers began to tumble out we were relieved to see them mostly fit and able, if exhausted from their journey, which I surmised must have been of much shorter duration than our own terrifying ride to have allowed them to keep so well. 

            The first wagons carried women and children, the latter men, though none wore the distinguishing brassard pronouncing them to be Jews. 

            As we watched, families join together on the concourse after their journey, children and wives hurrying to their fathers and husbands. I was filled with envy, the fear instilled by Henryk’s and Maxim’s words evaporating as the sound of joyous families reunited raised even above the loud music.

            It was obvious enough to me now that Maxim was mistaken, misled somehow by rumour and innuendo, his mind weakened by poor health, mistaking the fatalities caused by typhus for the work of the Nazis, and I felt my spirits rise. 

            The music stopped and Nazi guards stepped forward, addressing hundreds of people in broken Polish, confirming my suspicion that these were local people, having been brought from within Poland to work.

            Someone asked, “Where is our luggage?” and for a brief few seconds my worst fears danced across my mind as I realised not a single valise accompanied them, bringing back vivid memories of the scene I had witnessed in Warsaw.  A guard assured them their trunks were in the end wagon and would be unloaded shortly, and somehow I allowed myself to believe it, for in doing so I gained hope we would soon find our mother.

            The guards began to move among the new arrivals, asking them their trades and skills, directing those with valued abilities to a separate area, requesting the others remain where they were.  My pulse quickened as I heard a woman respond she was a seamstress and watched with keen interest as she was directed to stand with the select few.  This was Mama’s trade and evidently a valued one.  Most surely had she arrived safely at Auschwitz she would have been selected for her skills and might even now be employed somewhere close by. 

            As I watched the segregation of skilled and unskilled workers continue my hopes rose still further and I found myself clutching the hands of Elone and Nicolae, a faint smile playing on my lips. 

            Quite soon the separation was complete and the skilled workers were led away, assured they would meet their families again later, once they had been fully assessed.

            Then the Nazi guard turned on the several hundred Poles still standing on the concourse and warned them that the camp was rife with typhus, a fatal disease transmitted by lice, and that for this reason all new arrivals had to be disinfected before entry into the camp could be permitted.  Why the selected skilled workers should have been taken through without this precaution was not explained. 

            I watched the crowd directed to some windowless barracks just a short way distant, following a path which ran by our hideaway.

            My mind raced.  This was our chance to join them, to sneak in amongst them as they passed, to go on to the cleansing showers, and to emerge refreshed and lice-free. 

            A smile played on my lips and I reached out to Nicolae’s shoulder. From the showers we would surely be taken directly to the women’s quarters, perhaps to find Mama that very day. It was all I could do not to rush out and announce ourselves.

            As I edged forward, whispering to the children to make ready, I felt Elone touch my arm and looking to her could see alarm in her eyes. 

            As if reading my mind she whispered, “No, Anca, I do not like it.  There is something wrong here.”

            Be it intuition or childlike fear, her prescience concerned me, for I could not banish entirely from my mind the words of Maxim.  If his crazed denunciation of the showers was just too incredible to be believed, still his tortured features haunted my mind, warning me all was not as it seemed.

            I took a deep breath, closing my eyes, searching for the correct response. The right decision. At last I said quietly, “You are right, Elone.  Now is not the time.”

 

62.

We watched in silent fascination as the hundreds of people were led to the windowless barracks, there to be made to strip naked on the concourse, men, women and children alike, old and young together, evidently indifferent to their nudity, perhaps accepting it was the price they paid for their future security.  I thought fleetingly of the scene on the hill I had witnessed from Henryk’s truck. But this was different, I told myself. The showers were right alongside.

            A patina of frost still clung to the hard ground and a cold wind blew through the camp, making the would-be bathers shiver and hold their arms about themselves to keep warm.

            Guided by Kapos, labourers began to gather their clothes, throwing the garments onto carts.  To be disinfected, the curious were told. 

            More men appeared, carrying large sheets which they lay on the ground then, as we watched, these naked people were made to stand astride and their body hair, from their heads, beneath their arms, everywhere, was shaven clean. To prevent the typhus lice breeding I heard the Kapos explain.

            Only when every person, adult and child alike, had been so treated, were they led to the showers.  How many were crammed into each room I could not tell, but somehow every person there was found a place in one or other of the buildings and the doors closed around them. 

            The sheets of hair were carefully gathered and carted away, to what end I could not begin to guess.

            Now the concourse was all but empty, only a few guards remaining, indifferent to the Poles awaiting their fumigation within. 

            Nothing more to see, we eased our way back to our secure hiding place beneath the hut and huddled together for warmth.  I stroked Elone’s hair, thankful we had not presented ourselves as I had considered, a smile playing on my lips to imagine her head shaven.

            But my smile was short lived as the first screams began. 

            Bewildered, we stared about us, perplexed as to where the sound emanated, but in seconds it was obvious.  Maxim’s words came flooding back to me, of the fate met by his wife Catherine, taken to the shower rooms on her first day.

            As the screams became louder I hugged Nicolae to me, futilely covering his ears with my hands. 

Elone was clutching me, her eyes wide with fear, streaming tears, looking to me for salvation, but I could offer none. 

            For perhaps twenty minutes the screams continued unabated, tortured screams of men, women and children, enduring a fate I could not begin to imagine. 

            And then the screams began to subside and minutes later there was only silence, broken by the incessant, uncontrollable sobbing of three terrified children, alone and afraid in the very heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

 

63.

Nicolae was in shock, a low whine barely audible, that I could no nothing to quell, and I feared Elone would soon join him. 

            We clung together, lost innocents in this place of darkness and malificence.  Yet somehow, for all I had seen and heard, my mind could not embrace the truth. 

            For all I had witnessed…  My father’s execution; the brutal murder on the platform in Bucharest; the mowing down of lines of Jews outside Plaszow; the screams that still echoed loudly in my mind…  For all Henryk and Maxim had warned me, still I could not conceive of the enormity… Of the sheer scale of the extermination taking place here.

            It was so unreal that I began telling myself it had not happened.  That hunger and fatigue had produced some horrific collective hallucination between us.  That I would shortly wake up in a warm bed at home and find the whole thing had been no more than an obscene nightmare.

            I wanted to comfort the children, to deny what they had heard, to give them hope, but my brain had all but ceased to control my body.  I found myself being drawn back to the edge of the hut despite myself, not wanting, but needing, to see.  To assure myself it had not taken place, that I was somehow mistaken.

            For a moment, perhaps minutes, perhaps an hour, it was as if nothing had happened.  The concourse was deserted, the shower rooms silent.  A cool autumn sun was breaking through the smog of ash that drifted incessantly from the furnace chimneys now just a short way distant.  From afar I could hear the sounds of industry as the factories churned out their deadly munitions.

            Closer still I heard voices, human voices, from within the shower barracks and I was craning myself forward, desperate to believe, willing those hundreds of naked Poles to walk back out into the cold day, cleansed and disinfected, ready to don clean clothes and take up their duties.

            As the doors opened from within it was all I could do to contain my joy and rush out to greet them.  To embrace them.  To celebrate their very existence. 

            But the dream turned to macabre reality as the first labourer appeared in his striped prison uniform, dragging a cart behind him.  If I knew what was on the cart even before it emerged into view, still I looked, unable to tear my eyes from this grisly scene. 

            I watched, unwillingly, unable to turn away, as cartloads of tangled bodies were drawn across the concourse before me, quietly borne to the furnaces in the distance. 

            And as I watched the true nature of these ovens became apparent.  These four huge chimneys rising above the birch trees represented no industrial process but one.  They were crematoria, designed and built for the sole purpose to dispose of the bodies of the innocent victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

State of Play in the UK – Opportunities Ahead As Britain Finally Embraces eBooks

As regulars will know, I’m not normally the flag-waving type. I may be be born and bred in Britain, but I’m about as un-British as you can be.  For my money, the best thing about being British is having a UK passport to go abroad, where I spend most of my time.

But this week I’m going to talk Britain. Ot at least, about the British ebook market and what the future holds, because suddenly things are looking very bright indeed.

But first, a word about KDP Select.

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Amidst the gleeful cries of those who have had a good bounce from going free with KDP Select there is clear evidence of a fall in ebook sales overall as we hit February and into March, and especially so in the Amazon UK market.

Of course, we all expect the natural post-season slump. But for many, both in the US and UK, the anticipated Christmas bonanza with all those new e-readers coming onto the market, simply didn’t materialise. Partly because many new devices – the KindleFire, all the nooks, etc, were not and are not available outside the US, which rather skews international sales.

But both sides of the pond many writers, who were surging ahead in the latter part of 2011 and seriously thinking about giving up the day job, were brought down to Earth with a bump in 2012 when, especially from late January, their world stopped spinning.

For many more, the early success of Select, with the fabled post-free bounce, also faded as the five free days were used, the post-free bounce disappeared and Amazon’s spotlight moved on to the next lucky winner. Did the eighty days exclusive with Select after the free and post-free bounce justify the experiment as the flood of millions of free books through Select saturated the market?

From the feedback I’m hearing that’s at best 50-50. And of course it’s impossible to tell how many sales were “lost” on the other platforms as all those new iPad, nook and Kobo devices were fired up for the first time Christmas Day.

For many more in Select there were no lucky winners, period. It’s easy to get carried away on the euphoria whipped up by those who did well with Select and assume it’s a guaranteed winner. Just sign-up and reap the rewards.

But I’ve seen email after email from authors bitterly disappointed that thousands or even tens of thousands of free downloads converted to post-free sales in single figures or even zero. Needless to say they’re not rushing about on the blogs broadcasting their results like those who hit the jackpot. Which begs the question just how many it didn’t work for that we’re simply not hearing about…

In the UK of course the benefits were skewed from the start. Kindle UK isn’t privy to the borrowing option, as with so many Kindle US benefits. There’s no gift option on Kindle UK, for example. No KindleFire here, just the old b&w e-readers.

And as we all know Kindle UK is a smaller market place than Kindle US because e-reading has yet to take off in Britain.

But that could be about to change significantly. My prediction is the UK e-reading market is going to explode in the coming 12-18 months. Reaping huge rewards to those in the right places at the right time.

So a brief overview of the state of play in the UK.

One of the reasons Apple’s iPad is not leading the way with ebooks is that Steve Jobs famously dismissed ebooks as a waste of time. Citing the possibly accurate figure that 4 out of 10 Americans read less than one book a year, Jobs saw no future for ebooks, which became a sideline for the iPad.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” said the person with a vested interest in people reading less and spending more on music and games. So much for Steve Jobs the visionary.

By the time Apple realised their mistake Amazon had stormed ahead and seized the high ground. Of course they then responded with the Agency Agreement to try fight back. We all know the repercussions now as legal proceedings are prepared both sides of the Atlantic.

Not here to discuss that. David Gaughran has covered this issue far better than I could on many occasions. most recently here. But what’s significant is to grasp that Apple are belatedly taking ebooks seriously, and safe to say Steve Jobs’ successors will be revamping the iBooks store and making it a lot more user-friendly in the near future.

Apple has about twenty stores internationally, not least in the UK, and this is and will increasingly become a significant player for the UK market.

Leaving aside the accuracy or otherwise of the forty per cent of Americans who only read one book or less a year, it’s generally accepted that the UK is the world’s leading book-reading market per head of population.

It may not seem so when you look at your UK v US sales figures on KIndle, but that’s primarily a matter of ebook awareness.

Ebooks came late to the UK. Or rather, the Kindle came late, which was much the same thing. Other devices were available, but the introduction of Kindle UK in 2010 quickly gave Amazon dominance in the UK ebook market.

And despite appearances sometimes, it’s a significant market. Plenty of books are selling in six figures, and as e-reading in Britain increases so will your potential sales.

But unlike in the US, Kindle UK was pretty much unopposed. Apple, as above, simply wasn’t taking ebooks seriously. Kobo was barely established here. As for Barnes & Noble…

Amazon’s biggest competitor in the US simply doesn’t exist here. B&N doesn’t sell to the UK,and except through Smashwords it doesn’t allow writers to self-publish from the UK. No wonder Amazon took the UK by storm.

The only competition was the (at the time) small and neglected Waterstone’s ebook store and the equally pitiful W.H. Smiths ebook store. Yet Waterstone’s is the UK’s biggest book shop chain, and W.H. Smiths (stationers and general goods along with books) its nearest rival. Borders UK had gone to the wall several years before it happened in the US.

The Waterstone’s story was a sad tale of neglect and decline, as this company was passed around several buyers none of whom had the least interest in books until, most recently, it landed in the hands of a Russian billionaire, by when I had, Kindle UK aside, all but given up hope for ebooks in the UK.

Which was tragic. I loved Waterstone’s. It was my second home in the UK, especially where they had a decent coffee bar. The staff knew their products and would perform cartwheels to meet the customer’s requirements. Impossible to fault them.

Compare W.H. Smiths, where the girl at the book-ordering point, on being asked for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, asked which group it was by – and when I finally found the book and went to pay the checkout girl said she’d studied that book for her degree course. You couldn’t make it up…

But back to Waterstone’s.  Last year we found we had two top ten hits in Waterstone’s ebooks. Nowhere near Amazon sales levels, but still a worthy achievement. I happened to be in the UK and we tried to arrange a photo-shoot at Saffi’s local Waterstone’s store, so asked to speak to the manager.

“We have an ebook store?”

We contacted Waterstone’s HQ in London. No response. Meanwhile over in America B&N were inviting ebook sellers to do in-store readings and signing, introducing ebook booths, and pushing ahead with the nook.

This was about the time Waterstone’s was sold yet again. I despaired of Britain’s book future, let alone ebooks.

But the new man in charge of Waterstone’s, James Daunt (left, no tie), apparently with the full backing of (left, with tie) said billionaire Alexander Mamut (so there may just be the funds available to make it happen) is intent on transforming the stores nationwide and taking it into the digital age to compete head on with Amazon in the UK.

I’ve been following Daunt closely ever since, and have been very impressed with the way things are shaping. Rumour and speculation abound, but it seems some sort of partnership with B&N is imminent, at the very least to sell a branded in-store e-reader in the UK, and possibly much more.

This month B&N holds its first workshops in the UK, and a B&N presence of some sort, again almost certainly with Waterstone’s, seems just a matter of time.

Even as this happens Kobo, recently bought out by a huge Japanese corporation, so suddenly not short of cash itself, has appointed a new director of UK operation, has e-reader distribution deals with several major UK retailers, and just happens to run the ebook store for the UK’s second largest book-seller, W.H. Smiths.

All this just as the early adopter phase for e-readers comes to an end and the reticent late-comers stage begins. Lost? See my post Are The Big Six Publishers Really Dying?

Suddenly the UK market is being transformed. Kindle UK is facing serious competition here for the first time, and we can expect a very rapid uptake of ebook reading in the UK in this coming year. I strongly suspect the Christmas 2012 season will be a bonanza like none before for ebook sellers in the UK market.

Of course, accelerated ebook sales means the closure of the bricks and mortar stores is brought forward too, right? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away…

But it needn’t be so. Over at Anne R. Allen’s today I explain why, far from seeing bricks and mortar stores close, the digital revolution could give a whole new lease of life to “real” bookstores, even as print inexorably disappears from our shelves.

There’s never been a better time to be a writer or a reader. Or a publisher. Or even a book-store owner!

The future is bright. The future is digital, with coffee.

Saffi Does Sherlock

Saffi Does what???!!!

No shit, Sherlock!

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Hands up anyone who hasn’t heard of Sherlock Holmes?

Exactly. Everyone and their great grandmother have heard of Sherlock Holmes.

Now hands up everyone who’s actually read the Sherlock Holmes stories. No, having the Complete Sherlock on your bookshelf gathering dust doesn’t count. You’ve got to have actually read them.

Hmmm. Not quite so many of you now.

Rather like Shakespeare or Chaucer, or Dickens or Thackeray, or Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker, we all know – or think we know – the stories, and we all know they’re classics, and therefore must be wonderful, but few of us would ever have the inclination to actually read them. I mean, be honest, who among you have actually read Frankenstein, or Dracula, or a complete Dickens novel?

How many times do you see someone reading Shakespeare on the plane or on the beach? How many of you could even name ten Shakespeare plays? No, Henry V Parts 1 to 10 will not suffice.

Many of us, however much we may pretend otherwise in company, have a hatred of the classics drilled into us at school by uninspiring English teachers reciting what they in turn were taught at uni’ by uninspiring lecturers.

Often we only come to the classics as adults, usually after a major film or TV adaptation. No question Keira Knightley’s breathtaking performance as Elizabeth Bennett did more to boost sales of Pride & Prejudice than any number of school teachers could ever do.

Thus it has been with Sherlock Holmes this past year or two. The Sherlock books are gaining a whole new reading audience thanks to the recent BBC take on the Conan Doyle classics.

By chance I was in the UK with my daughter when the first of the new BBC Sherlock launched. Of course as a long-standing Sherlock fan I rearranged my schedule to watch it, and absolutely loved it.

But my daughter, while enjoying the excitement and the SFX, was rather lost on the clever word play and the cut and thrust of the intellectual debate behind the stories. Now that may be in part because English is her fourth language and she was only seven at the time. But it got me wondering how I could introduce Sherlock to her, and that in turn begged the question how I first discovered Conan Doyle myself.

It was, of course, through Enid Blyton.

Yes, I’ve waxed lyrical here on MWi many times about Blyton’s unsurpassed contributions to childhood literature. Need I mention Noddy? Tales of Toyland? St Clare’s and Malory Towers? Brownie Tales? The Wishing Chair or The Magic Farwaway Tree?  Dare I whisper the near-perfect The Land of Far Beyond?

Along with these, the Five Find-Outers and Dog mysteries were an integral part of my childhood. The Mystery of the Secret Room was my first introduction to Fatty, Daisy, Larry, Pip and Bets and Buster the dog, and Mr. Goon the bumbling policeman, and the always pleasant Inspector. Yeah, no surprise I should end up writing crime stories…

The Mystery of the Secret Room had it all. Mysterious vehicle tracks inthe snow on the drive of an empty house. Invisible ink. How to get out of a locked room when the key is on the other side. The thin-lipped man. When you’re seven years old this is breathtaking stuff, believe me.

Sure the Famous Five were fun too, but I actually lived on a farm by the sea with light-houses and smugglers caves and harbours, so for me solving the Five Find-Outers mysteries was much more fun that than reading about Julian, George and Anne doing things I got to do every day anyway.

In the Five Find-Outers series Fatty (yes, he was no light-weight – dear Enid had no time for political correctness – but his nickname came mainly from his initials, as the improbably named Frederick Algernon Trotteville) was a big Sherlock fan. Therefore so was I.

But like for so many, being a Sherlock fan and watching Basil Rathbone in the films, and reading the actual original stories, were two very different things.

Conan Doyle didn’t write for children, or about children. He wrote for articulate Victorian adults in a uniquely convoluted style that you either love or hate.

Sadly I hated it. Kicking off with The Hound of the Baskervilles was a big mistake and I set Conan Doyle aside for several years, before rediscovering his delights, thanks to a children’s TV series called The Baker Street Boys.

Not a patch on the later adult series starring Jeremy Brett, of course, but a great idea. Then came the BBC Sherlock… Or more importantly the latest series, reviewed here on MWi by my very own co-author Miriam just a few weeks ago. And it emerged that no less than two of my co-authors had never previously read Sherlock. A shocking oversight since rectified, I might add.

This got me thinking once again about how my daughter, and in due course my son (only five, so not quite as urgent a task) would discover Sherlock. Where’s Enid Blyton when you need her?

I emailed my daughter, now back in England, to get her views. She explained that her teacher had told the class Sherlock was unsuitable for children. And of course Teacher has a point. Much of Sherlock is very unsuitable for children.

The solution was obvious.

And in one of those rare moments of synchronicity, even as I pressed send on my email to Saffi, 3000 miles away, she was pressing send on an email to me suggesting that given the current surge of interest in Sherlock what if we…

Now of course Sherlock is in the public domain. Author and artist both expired long since, and just like with any of the true classics, they’re fair game for anyone. But the last thing we wanted to do was just republish an old Sherlock story under our name. We needed to add value, to use the economic jargon.

And so the Saffi Does Sherlock series was born. We’re taking some of our favourite Sherlock shorts and rewriting them for modern-day kids who want modern-day English reading but want to savour the essence of the real Sherlock Holmes.

Not as easy as it sounds. What we’ve done is try incorporate some of Conan Doyle’s original wording in amongst the modern-day language, while retaining the settings and characters, and while remaining faithful to the original storyline. Quite a challenge when you consider the more adult elements of Sherlock, with often violent crimes, opium dens and cocaine abuse, along with attitudes towards foreigners that border on racist.

To further add value we enlisted the services of one of our cover designers, Athanasios, to produce not only a cover but some original color illustrations for the series, to run alongside the reproduced originals by Sidney Paget.

 

The first in the series, Sherlock Holmes – The Blue Carbuncle, is live on Amazon even as you read this, and will be filtering out to other platforms soon.

The second in the series, Sherlock Holmes – Silver Blaze, will be joining it very shortly.

As ever, my system isn’t letting me access the links, but just type Saffi Sherlock into the site search engine and it shall appear. There’s only one Saffi Does Sherlock!

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And for those teens among you thinking it a trifle unfair we’ve now provided books for adults and children, but left out the YA market, fear not. It’s your turn next.

The first of our YA releases will be making an appearance in a matter of days – stay tuned.

And be warned, there’s nothing supernatural or paranormal about it. The only wolf in it a real one; there are no vampires; and it is most definitely not a fairy-tale.

No, it’s not the long awaited St. Mallory’s Forever! either, though that is edging closer even as we speak. Watch our for a sneak preview of the St Mall’s cover next week!

But our first YA story, in keeping with our crime-writing tradition, is somewhat more hard-hitting.

It’s about the greatest crime of all – genocide. You have been warned.

 

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