Tsundoku

I've come down with a disease. I've been harbouring the symptoms for years, but it's only recently that side-effects of the problem have become properly noticeable. I've caught tsundoku. And the thing is, you've probably got it too. 

Tsundoku is a Japanese slang term for buying books and having them pile up around you. Those shelves of unread paperbacks? Thrillers on your Kindle happily displaying 0% read? The teetering stack of novels on the bedside table? All known signs of the contagion. 

I blame society, of course. Not my own poor impulse control, the cheapness of books in general (they've never been more inexpensive, and never represented better value against other forms of entertainment), one-click online buying systems, next day delivery options, the eminent browsability of charity shops and new booksellers alike. And that's before we get the inestimable bounty of libraries simply brimming with books, all of them free at the point of use, like an NHS of the imagination.

None of that's to blame.

Nor is my wholesale abandonment of portion control. At present I read in full a book or so a week; maybe two if I'm lucky. Push that to three if I've a longish train journey or two coming up. So, by the laws of one-in, one-out, you'd have thought that this would regulate my purchasing and borrowing.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Yeah, right.

I think I'm on about a book a day at the minute. The postie has long since given up on sardonic commentary about the parade of slightly-battered padded envelopes from online secondhand purveyors of lexical drugs. My collection of red "While You Were Out" cards would provide sending-off artillery for the entire Football League if so appropriated.  

 But I can handle it. So what if I can barely sit down for Jenga-like constructions of reference material, or see out of the kitchen window (the window-ledge long since been overtaken as a source of ad-hoc shelving)? 

I can handle it. And besides, like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone story, I'll never want for reading. 

If only I could find my glasses. They were here a minute ago. I swear it. Hmm...

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My novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available via Amazon (in ebook and paperback), Kobo (ebook), and Smashwords (ebook).  

The loyal reader

It’s late. Friday night. I’m in a hotel room. One of those chain places they advertise on the television. It’s okay. Clean and predictable, though there’s no remote for the TV. That’s not a problem though. If I want the box, then there’s buttons on the top of the device. And anyway, I’m reading a book.

More than that. I’m reading the last of a series. Seventeen novels and a book of short stories. I’ve got the short stories to go, but I’ll finish the last novel tonight.

Like the Nick Lowe song says, I read a lot these days. And in the days before. And I’ve always been a loyal reader. Some writers I’ve stuck with since my childhood: Stephen King (everything except Salem’s Lot, which for some reason I could never get on with, and the Dark Tower sequence), Ian Fleming, Alan Garner, Kim Newman, Shirley Jackson, Peter Ackroyd, James Herbert. For years, Stephen Donaldson, Charles Dickens, Umberto Eco, Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke, Saki, Gregory McDonald. Rowling and Blyton and Clive Barker. Ramsey Campbell. I tend to skitter about much more and more, what with one thing and another, but from time to time I’ll lock into a writer and do whatever the novelistic equivalent of binge-watching is.

A year or so ago, it was Joe R Lansdale. Reading his stuff was like being fourteen again, to the extent of passing round paperbacks like they were contraband, except with work colleagues instead of schoolmates. He’s got a new novel in his Hap and Leonard sequence – it’s called Honky Tonk Samurai – out in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait.

For the last few months though, I’ve been on a Lawrence Block run. And I’ve only got Brian Koppelman to blame.

I started following Brian Koppelman on Twitter after coming across some of his six-second screenwriting soundbites; Vine video-clips with a zen nugget of writing-related wisdom. Now, nothing curdles the internet faster than writing advice, but Koppelman’s got interesting things to say, and says them in interesting ways. Check out his podcast The Moment for more in-depth stuff. 

Anyway, the point is this. One of Koppelman’s clips said words to the effect that if you want to understand character development, read Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series of private detective novels in sequence. And that hit home, not least because it’s not a pat thing to say. Seventeen novels and a volume of short stories, remember.

The notion stuck.

A few weeks later, and I’m running out of Joe Lansdale material. When I’m bingeing I tend to alternate. One of the sequence in question, something else to refresh the palate. That kind of thing. I’m browsing the crime section of an out-of-town bookshop and I pick up two books. One’s Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. The other’s a Lawrence Block novel. Not one of his Scudder books, but a mid-series entry in another cycle; this one features bookshop proprietor and cat-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. What the heck; I buy both. Gun Machine is great, by the way. A psycho-geographic New York thriller. Read it if you haven’t. The Block is pacy, light and amusing, plus it presents a few neat twists and turns, and it’s dialogue-driven as heck. I’m sold.

I live in a small town that hasn’t supported a bookshop since I was a child. Block’s Scudder novels were published between the early 1970s and 2011. Normally, they’d be variable in difficulty to track down, and to get a run in sequence would be a protracted and perhaps expensive thing to be doing. However, they’re all available in ebook format. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what the format is for. The inexpensive and permanent availability of back-catalogue works.

So I start buying. Two or three at a time. I keep them for train journeys and nights away. And when I’m down to my last volume, I go online and re-up.

We first meet Scudder as an alcoholic ex-cop; he quits the force after accidentally shooting dead a young girl in the line of duty while drunk. He’s left a wife and two boys in the suburbs, lives in a hotel room, and supports himself by doing off-the-books private investigations. He punishes himself for his sins and his weaknesses with the drink, with tithing his earnings to churches, and with the drink again.

The novels are procedurals. The set-ups are similar. Someone hires Scudder, usually through a mutual acquaintance or recommendation, and he investigates. He uses his New York cop contacts and a developing network of informants and drinking buddies to navigate the city. He doesn’t carry a gun, but can handle himself. Sometimes he needs to be able to.

Relationships come and go. Friends remain. Eventually, Scudder bottoms out; the drink (bourbon and coffee, likely as not) catches up and takes over. So Scudder enters Alcoholics Anonymous. And, dammit, five novels in, we want him to get better. A redemption of sorts is hard-earned. And, slowly, slowly, Scudder climbs out of the gutter.

There’s more, of course. If you want the Cliff Notes version, try the recent movie adaptation of A Walk Through The Tombstones, with Liam Neeson as Scudder. It’s a very solid movie with a pleasing 70s thriller vibe to it, as well as being a decent attempt at telescoping Scudder’s backstory into the source novel’s narrative.

So, I’ve got the short stories left to go and that’s it. And the reading journey’s been more than worthwhile. These are fine books, with engaging characters and intriguing dilemmas. And across the books, something bigger. Each book’s got a plot, but there’s a layer of story over the top of the series that you only really begin to appreciate once you’re deep into the sequence.  

That’s not to say that Block’s writing - or Scudder as a character - will work for you in the same way. But it did for Brian Koppelman (who passed it on – there’s a foreword by him to the short stories as well) and it has done for me. But it might do.

And even if it doesn’t, or even if you never go near the books, then maybe you still have an obligation. If you come across a series that you like, or that you’ve had recommended in some way, and it’s worked for you, and if you think that maybe this is stuff that someone else might not come across without the heads-up, then say so.

Boost the signal. Make some appreciative waves.

It's a way of saying thanks.           

How I buy books

I'm having a bit of a clearout at home. Stuff has got to go. And "stuff" includes books. And that means making some hard decisions. Now, I've probably got an active hoarder gene. I'm not in TV documentary league; I haven't gone full Trebus or anything like that, but things tend to accumulate around me. Most of this is good; stuff brings with it comforts, after all. But too much is too much, and when the shelves buckle and when the window ledges that you've co-opted into bookcase usage fill up and with that block out the light, then it's time to get some volumes shifted.

So why am I still buying books? If you're bailing out your lifeboat you don't pour water into the vessel, do ya?

Take this weekend for instance. I was away for a couple of days and, as usual, I took a book (just the one) with me for writing/research use as well as my Kindle onto which I'd loaded a couple more novels in the series of New York detective books that I'm reading at present (the Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block, just so you know).

However, I knew that I was going to buy another paperback while I was away. The new David Mark - Taking Pity - which was fresh out in paperback last week. Mind you, I couldn't track a copy down. Three Manchester branches of WH Smith, no joy.  

Not to worry, though. I was going from Manchester to Nottingham. Nottingham wouldn't let me down. And indeed it didn't. First port of call - the city's multi-floored Waterstones - gave up the goods. And that should have been it. You've got your book. Get out of here.

Oh, no. That would be too easy. I'm in the crime section on the ground floor, anyway, so I get to browsing. I walk over to the B section and find a Lawrence Block novel in the lovely Hard Case Crime imprint that specialises in noir-ish fiction with beautifully pulpy covers. That one falls straight into my hand.

But I'm not done. Upstairs I go.  Nottingham Waterstones is one of those stores that seduces you upstairs with the promise of escalators and the smell of coffee, then lets you shuffle, spent, back down via the stairs.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A pocket paperback copy. A book that Block's series anti-hero Scudder turns to from time to time. I haven't got one at home; I'm sure of it. That joins the purchases.  

Get out of here before you do yourself more harm. I make it to and through the tills. Back out into the low autumn sun. It's Saturday, late afternoon. I start heading back. Then I remember. That other bookshop, the independent one round the corner. A shop I've never been in before.

I'm there in five minutes, and back out within fifteen. The shop - Five Leaves Bookshop - is eclectic, left-leaning, artfully shambolic. Apparently it's only been there a couple of years, but feels like its roots go deep. I buy another couple of books - a slim volume of John Ruskin, an interesting-looking kinda psychogeographic book that I know nothing about - but they're almost token purchases; buys made as nods of affiliation. I could have spent a lot more time (and money) in there. Except I'm not supposed to be buying more books, am I? I'm having a clear-out, remember?       

A brief chat with the friendly proprietor; I'm given a heads-up on the local arty cinema and the events listings / arts newspaper. I'm already wondering if they do mail-order.

Eventually, I'm home after the weekend, my bag somewhat heavier than it had been when I set out, and my weeding-out-the-books task made that little bit more complicated. Of course, there's a note waiting for me; one of the red-and-white postcards from Royal Mail telling me that there's a parcel for me for pickup. I know what it is. Inevitably, another book.      

 

         

Hardbacks and paperbacks and ebooks, oh my.

Or, why do we have all of these formats? And is it time for a change?

Back in the day, whenever that was, there were only hardback books. If you wanted a book, it came with a hard cover. On the upside, the book was well-presented,  durable, and looked and felt good. On the potential downside, book were comparatively expensive, not least because they were a status item, but also because they cost money to be produced. 

Then along came the railways. Mid-Victorian publishers sprang up offering cheap paper-covered volumes, often smaller in size, that were lighter, thus more portable, for the new rail-travelling markets, both to commuters and to leisure travellers. Chains like WH Smith grew on the back of such novelties, and for many these inexpensive alternatives were a way into book ownership for the first time.

So part of the history of books is the history of the available technology; innovations in mass printing, the developing rail infrastructure, changing leisure patterns. Add to this the rise of literacy among all classes throughout the 19th century, and there you have it. 

It wasn't until the inter-war years that paperbacks took off as a mass-market alternative though. Imprints such as Penguin bought reprint rights to ranges of books; offering again portability, the eye-catching immediacy of the distinctive Penguin cover and branding, and also price.

Now, until comparatively recently, publishing was not as vertically integrated as an industry as it is today. In other words, there were publishers, and there were paperback publishers. The two co-existed uneasily. There was a delay, often of years, if not decades, between original and paperback reprint publication. For in-demand books, there'd be bidding wars, not for original publication rights, but for reprint rights in paperback. Stephen King, in On Writing, tells of such an auction for the paperback rights of his first-published novel Carrie.       

But that was forty years ago. Through mergers, acquisitions and internal development, there's no longer the organisational divide between hard- and paperback; the same company will tend to publish both. As such, gaps in publication between the two formats have come down to a few months, perhaps a year. 

So here's the question: why? And how do ebooks complicate matters? The hardback remains a premium product, and profits per copy on their sales outweigh those of the paper alternative, so there's both kudos and cash to be had in hardback sales. Plus, some people prefer the format, and they're hard-wearing, so handy for long-suffering librarians to allow out on loan.  

But there's no hard-and-fast rule for ebook follow-on publication. Traditionally (if I can even talk about there being ebook traditions) the ebook price shadows the cheapest available real-world version, being pitched at just a little less. Sometimes, there's a delay until the ebook is available, sometimes not. 

In the world of movies, matters are more standardised. Either a film is released across all formats at once (limited cinema release to gain some reviews, home sell-through, video-on-demand) or the more traditional cinema release, followed twelve weeks later by DVD/Bluray and virtual rental, and then a few weeks later to other on-demand services. 

So are there options here for publishing? Release the book in all formats at once, so that the reader can enjoy the writing in the format (and price band) that suits them best? Many self-publishers and genre publishers do this in some form or other.  

Or is there value, use, and profit (let's not begrudge margins for all) in maintaining a lengthy staggered release system? And where do ebooks fit into this? I'm a little dubious of current mainstream ebook pricing policies, which seem (to an outsider) unduly attached to the price of the alternative, rather than to the value of the electronic file itself. Of course there are the hidden costs of publishing (design, production, marketing, editing, agent commission, writer's advance and royalty, storage and distribution, retailer's percentage and so on)  but some of these are either minimal or co-opted in to the physical book's existing costs where an e-version is concerned. 

I think I'd rather pay the same price for the ebook as the print version rather than something different. The paper/e-ink is, after all, merely a delivery system. A price differential raises questions about what you're buying. 

Then again, though, there are the intangibles. The smell of the paper. The softness of US paperbacks compared to their UK alternatives. Folding the page over (yeah, I'm a folder-over) rather than clicking the top-right-hand corner to have a virtual fold icon pop up. The display function; books as interior design, as conversation piece, as conspicuous consumption, as social identifier and as accessory. 

A Kindle or an iPad draws attention to the technology, not to the book.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but who'd ever sneak a second peek at that person over there who's staring at a screen when there's that automatically-more-interesting other person. The one with the book. 

Maybe some things are worth paying for, after all. 

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My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available in paperback from me (signed if you prefer!) or in both paperback and  ebook via Amazon

 

    

Prospect: out in paperback and Kindle ebook!

So it looks as though The Prospect of This City is available in paperback as well as in Kindle versions! Blimey. 

The covers are a little different at present - the ebook cover with the woodcut is the frontispiece of the paperback version - so you won't lose out by not seeing it if you go old-school and buy the physical version! 

Anyway, I hope you like it. If you read the novel, please leave some feedback on the Amazon review page. It's a really useful way of getting the book out there, and for you to sound off about it as appropriate! 

Here's links to the UK and US sites (though it's also up on other overseas Amazon websites too):

UK paperback / UK Kindle ebook / US paperback / US Kindle ebook

 

Rear cover text and look for The Prospect of This City

Here's a preview of the back cover text (it's a short piece taken from the beginning of the novel) for the paperback version of Prospect. 

Not looking too bad, is it?

Once the paperback's available, I'll let you fine folks know. In the meantime, the novel's out on Kindle. This link takes you to Amazon's UK site, and it's up on all international Amazon sites too. 

The artwork and layout work's been done by my brother, Maxim Peter Griffin. You can find him on Twitter at @maximpetergriff and also here at his website.