Why we shouldn’t shy away from reading the past

Socially acceptable attitudes and actions change over time. The changes build under the surface, and every so often there’s what seems to be a large shift (there’s one happening now with Black Lives Matter, and there was the whole MeToo thing a few years ago). When these large shifts in culture happen, it’s natural to reassess not only what is around at the moment, but also what happened in the past.

Many of the books read today were written many years ago, by writers who lived at different times. So how should we react when their sensibilities differ from our own?

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First, I think it’s important to separate the book from the writer. Most stories are written primarily to entertain, so does it matter what the writer was like as a person? Should we discard works created by those we disagree with, or those whose views sit uncomfortably against our modern sensibilities?

I think this is a personal decision. If your feelings about the writer are so strong that it’s impossible for you to dissociate their work from their personality, then why put yourself through the discomfort? But if you can separate the story from the person behind it, is there any problem with still reading it?

But what if the content of the story is problematic? What if there is racism or sexism or any other prejudice in the words?

One thing to note here is that attitudes expressed (or shown) through characters’ words and actions are not necessarily those shared by the writer. Any story needs its protagonist, so there are always going to be characters we don’t like, those we want the hero to overcome. And then there are those books that actively explore prejudice, that display a variety of attitudes in order to encourage the reader to think about their own beliefs. There’s racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, but that doesn’t make the book itself racist.

So the words should be read in context.

This still leaves problems. Some (especially older) books have their heroes displaying attitudes we no longer find acceptable. There are books with throwaway lines that are, by today’s standard, deemed offensive.

I’ve heard some people suggest editing older books to suit modern audiences‌—‌but I don’t agree with this. There’s a line by philosopher George Santayana (often wrongly attributed to Churchill):

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

There’s a danger of erasing or amending the past‌—‌it gives us a false view of history. We risk losing context for where we are now.

And there’s that word again‌—‌context. This, I believe, is key to the whole issue.

The attitudes displayed in these books might be wrong by today’s standards, but they weren’t necessarily seen that way when the writer was working on the story. The attitudes and beliefs of a writer will creep into even the most escapist of fiction, even if unconsciously‌—‌in the use of certain words, or the portrayal of characters who are ‘different’ to the author (race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, whatever). Is this the ‘fault’ of the writer, or their society?

When we read books, especially ones written decades (or centuries) ago, we need to remember they come from a different place, a different time.

Doing this not only gives us permission to enjoy the book for its merits, but it also educates us. The taboo words bandied around without a care, the prejudice on display‌—‌these things show us how we’ve changed.

And that leads to something else‌—‌the realisation that things aren’t perfect today, that change is still happening. The past shouldn’t be airbrushed and forgotten, but should serve as encouragement to keep improving.

New short story – ‘The Hangman’

Writing is a constant learning process.

I recently took part in J Thorn’s Supercharge Your Scene 5-day challenge. Along with the instruction from J, this challenge involved writing a scene (or short story). He presented us with a number of prompts and suggested we pick one in a genre we don’t normally write or read (because stepping outside comfort zones is a great way to learn).

The one that drew my attention was the Western prompt, and the end result is The Hangman. I’m not sure how well it ‘works’ (according to J’s teaching), with much of the ‘action’ left to the imagination, but overall I’m pleased with it. For something that could have become very dark, I think there’s a lot of hope in this story.

You can read The Hangman here.

And, in case you’re interested, this is the prompt, which I used word for word as the opening to the story:

The hangman took down the body from the gallows. It was the third execution Sheriff Sands had ordered this week‌—‌three more than all of last year.

The future of publishing and book-selling, post-Covid

 

The world is constantly changing, and any business that doesn’t adapt is liable to fail. Change is often gradual, or is sudden in one particular area, so there’s a cushion of normalcy within which to plan.

The current pandemic has thrown that on its head. The changes brought about by lockdowns have been both sudden and far-reaching, and businesses are struggling. Many have already gone under. And even those businesses that are doing well are struggling to cope with increased workload or increased demand‌—‌supermarkets have run low on stock, and have had to employ more staff to cope with demand, for example.

One industry that has so far weathered current events well is independent publishing. These businesses are usually run by a single person (the writer of the books they publish), and make the majority of their sales on-line in digital format. In fact, many indie publishers have reported a rise in sales over the last few months.

But over publishing and bookselling overall, the picture is different. Production of physical books has been delayed by the slow-down in manufacturing, and there have not been high-street stores open to sell the books anyway. Even as bookstores open up in the UK, people are reticent about using them like they once did‌—‌how does someone browse books when there’s the risk of passing on infection through touching the books themselves?

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So what does the future look like for publishers and bookstores for the rest of the year? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but for each company or business I see four possibilities.

(I’m ignoring libraries in this because they are about so much more than books‌—‌maybe that’s a subject for another day)

Some will fall

This, sadly, is inevitable. Some stores and publishers will close their doors for good, and others will be bought out. This will, of course, impact staff, as well as contractors and clients.

Some will manage to carry on as if nothing has happened

Through extensive financial backing or incredibly loyal customers, a handful of stores and publishers might weather the storm relatively unscathed, and continue as they have done previously. But this will be a very small minority, and I don’t think any store or publisher should bank on this happening to them‌—‌they probably have more chance of winning the lottery.

Some will adapt

I hope this will be true of the majority of publishing-related businesses. Those who are relatively new won’t be set in their ways, and so will be more agile, more flexible in their approach to the difficulties Covid-19 has thrown up. Older companies will have been through other periods of change, and so have experience to work with. They may also have deeper pockets and more resources.

But how will they adapt?

Independent bookstores have been adapting for years‌—‌offering more personal services (like events, or providing social activities around the books they sell) and becoming specialists in particular niches. Interestingly, Waterstones did something similar when James Daunt took over‌—‌he gave each store greater independence, encouraging staff to order in the stock they believed those in their area would want. Instead of each store becoming carbon-copies of one another, they became more local, encouraging greater customer loyalty as the stores provided what their customers most wanted. And as consumers return to physical stores, many are going to want to help those stores they have an attachment to‌—‌local stores, or ones that offer exactly what the customer wants.

And then there’s the whole digital sphere. Daunt has recently taken over Barnes & Noble, and he’s spoken of reviving the Nook (the B&N e-reader and e-book store). I wouldn’t be surprised if other stores (and publishers?) entered deals with e-book stores, similar to the deal between Walmart and Kobo. Also, I’d expect them to focus more on their own on-line platforms for physical sales.

Amazon showed how this could work, in their physical stores. I’ve written before how their stores work not so much as somewhere to buy but somewhere to browse, with staff ready to help customers make online purchases, either physical copies shipped to their doors or digital copies they can read on their Kindles or mobiles. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine other places doing something similar, even if it’s only through encouraging customers to order physical copies. They might even stress the benefits of this‌—‌a sealed copy that hasn’t been touched by countless other browsers, home-delivered.

Then there are audio-books. They’ve come a long way from bulky tapes or CDs, and mobile technology (and smart speakers) makes listening to audiobooks so easy. Audiobook sales have risen drastically over the last few years, and I’d imagine publishers pushing more of this content. If bookstores work in conjunction with on-line providers, they could move into this field too.

Some will introduce radically new ways of working.

Restrictions have always given the possibility of innovation. Many artists prefer restrictions to having an ‘anything goes’ approach. Similarly, tough times often result in huge leaps forward.

While many will seek ways to mould their old ways of working to fit the new normal, others will take this time as an opportunity to try wild new ideas. It’s likely that not many of these ideas will work out in the long term, but those that do could be game-changing.

I can’t give firm examples, of course, but I can throw out a few possibilities. As virtual reality technology improves, maybe we’ll soon be shopping in virtual stores, ‘walking’ around the shelves and ‘picking up’ those books that interest us. Subscription services for TV, film and music are expanding, so maybe we’ll see more book-based subscription services. Then there’s print-on-demand‌—‌the Espresso Book Machine already allows in-store printing, but what if this technology improved, with both cost and size coming down? Or how about the trend in high-quality print editions‌—‌will we see an increase in books as art-works of themselves, secondary to the words inside?

Who knows what will happen? But something will. It’s likely that a few radically new ideas will develop and eventually take hold. Just think of e-books. Their history stretches back to the 70s, and the first dedicated e-reader only came out at the end of the 90s, but their importance in publishing today is undeniable.

And, like e-books, these new ideas will inevitably disrupt the status quo. They will throw up huge challenges for publishing and book-selling.

But that’s fine. In fact, it’s good. Change is inevitable. It’s through change that industry, business and art grow and develop. Without change there is only stagnation.

 

New short story – ‘Bugs’

This story was another one that started life as an exercise in free-writing (writing whatever came to mind, with no plan). For ages, I wasn’t sure where it was going, and it was only when I returned to it recently that I added the last few lines, then the first few‌—‌and the story made some kind of sense.

At least, I think it does.

Decide for yourself. Bugs is free to read here.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Just add a comment after the story.

Last few days of this promo

MayGiveawayThis fantasy and science-fiction giveaway has over 150 free books, covering all kinds of science fiction and fantasy, in all kinds of lengths (short stories, novellas, samplers, full novels, even multi-book collections). But it’s only running until the 15th of this month, so you only have a couple more days to discover your next favourite writer.

(Oh, and I’ve got a couple of books in it too.)

Click here before Monday to see the full list of books, and download some free reading for the summer. We might not be able to physically travel that much at the moment, but with these books we can go to places we’ve never even imagined.

New short story – ‘Payment’

There’s a classic study from 1972 where children were presented with a small marshmallow. They were offered a choice‌—‌ eat it straight away or hold off for a short time. If they waited they were rewarded with a large marshmallow. Further studies seemed to indicate that those children who were better able to wait would later perform better in SATS tests, and would ultimately be more ‘successful’ in life.

But it’s not only children who struggle with delayed gratification. Too often, we all want something good straight away, grabbing what we can in the moment. Sometimes it’s hard to take that step back and view each situation subjectively.

This idea rears its head in my latest short story, Payment. It’s also influenced by the Raymond Chandler books I’ve been reading recently (partly as research for a new project I’m working on, and partly because I enjoy his writing).

You can read Payment here. As always, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

 

What are the best books to read in trying times?

Many publishers are struggling at the moment. With so many bookstores across the world closed, sales of paperbacks and hardbacks have fallen. But reports have shown that ebooks sales are stronger than ever, and many independently published authors (who tend to focus on ebooks over print versions) have reported strong profits over the last couple of months.

Many, but not all. I’ve sold far fewer books since March than I did over the first couple of months of the year. My sales aren’t exactly high at the best of times, and my current dip could be down to any number of reasons, but I did wonder if genre is a factor in this. While people are reportedly reading more than usual, there might be a bias toward certain genres. Maybe the particular niche my books fall in is simply not what many want to read at the moment.

To investigate this further, I took a look at the top Kindle ebook sellers in the UK, and a few types of book dominated the list‌—‌feel-good reading, crime and thrillers, and biographies and memoirs.

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Feel-good books make perfect sense‌—‌this is reading as an escape from the worries of real life. But crime and thrillers can be violent and disturbing‌—‌at first glance, not exactly an antidote to real-world troubles.

These connected genres are still selling well, I believe, for a couple of reasons. First, they are incredibly popular in ‘normal’ times, and so many crime and thriller fans will keep reading what they know and love. But secondly, these stories often end very positively. Yes there are dark crimes and twisted motives, and the characters (and, vicariously, the readers) are placed in increasingly tense situations. But at the climax, the crime is solved and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice. The hero defeats the evil antagonist. Everything turns out well.

When real life is messy and uncertain, we look for something reliable. We want to believe that good will always triumph, and that wrongs will be set right. So these genres give us that feel-good ending, and do work as an escape from our real-world troubles.

Then there are the biographies and memoirs. The appearance of non-fiction doesn’t surprise me‌—‌on top of the ‘usual’ non-fiction readers, there are many who struggle with fiction when times are tough. But we’re all drawn to story, and stories of people’s lives fulfil this.

Consider too the nature of biographies and memoir. Many of these stories involve the narrator facing and overcoming some obstacle. They fight against the odds, emerging stronger at the end, the pain and depression and hopelessness becoming the lessons and motivation to succeed.

What better antidote to all the doom and gloom than reminders that there is hope, and that it is possible to not only survive adversity but come through stronger than before?

So the bestsellers are filled with books that offer either escape or the promise of success.

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But what of the very obvious absences in this bestseller list? Where was the horror and science fiction? Where was the darker stuff? In short, where were the type of books I enjoy reading?

It’s clear to see why darker books aren’t too popular at the moment (although I contend that horror is generally a positive genre, with good triumphing over very powerful evil, and you can read my thoughts on this here). Readers who dabble in these kinds of books might be staying away from anything disturbing, wanting instead to use reading as a booster to their positivity. And those of us who find enjoyment from darker books even in hard times are not numerous enough to push these titles into bestseller lists.

Maybe this is why my own books aren’t selling too well at the moment. Maybe I need to work harder at finding suitable potential readers, those who would enjoy science-fiction horror or dark Dystopian thrillers.

There might be trends in reading, but every reader is different. There’s an audience for every kind of book. Asking what the best books to read in trying times is impossible to answer in any but the most general terms. One reader’s engrossing Dystopian tale is another’s bleak trudge through depression. One reader’s buoyant romance, where love shines through, is another’s saccharine overdose of tweeness. One reader is drawn to cosy mysteries where the amateur sleuth and friends solve the murder, while another is pulled toward gritty stories where the criminals and those chasing them are all riddled with flaws that threaten to destroy them from the inside.

So the best thing to read is whatever will make you feel better, whatever engages you, whatever gives you the enjoyment, escapism and mental stimulation you seek.

But, most importantly, keep reading. Reading always helps.

A reminder of free books

No new short story this week (sorry), but I do have a few things I’d like to mention.

The short stories and novellas in my Dominions series are free on all platforms (click here to see details). They’ve garnered more interest than I expected, so I’ll keep them free for a while longer.

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I’m also thinking of changing things with the rest of the series. Ebook sales and downloads are constantly changing‌—‌what garnered decent sales a year ago won’t necessarily be as effective today. There’s no ‘set it and forget it’ method of ebook sales, and I have to consider different strategies and tactics. I have to be willing to change, and to experiment with new ideas.

I don’t want to set all my books to free (it would be nice to at least recoup costs!), but free is powerful. I’m reminded of that at the moment through the pleasing number of downloads of the two titles I have in the Fantasy & Sci-Fi Giveaway on BookFunnel. And this giveaway is still on, with over 150 titles. For a complete list of the books, click here.

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And now, I need to get back to the first draft I’m in. I’ve almost finished‌—‌and then I’ll have time to work on a couple of short stories (before planning the next book, and editing the new one, and everything else that needs doing!)

I think I might have to download some of those free books and escape into someone else’s story for a while.