25% off all books! (opening sale)

Lello bookstore, Portugal

Well, I’m a few months late to the party, but it  seems that Amazon has finally admitted that there is a life outside Kindle!

It’s now apparently possible to load EPUBs onto your Kindle through Amazon’s discomobulator which turns them into Amazon’s proprietary format. In fact, the Amazon ebook publishing service gave up accepting DOCs and DOCXs some time ago, and now only accepts EPUBs. I’m guessing that technology has now made it over to the consumer side of Amazon, having had the suppliers as beta testers to iron out the bugs. Here’s how you do it!

What this means for readers is that there is a vast sea of public-domain and other titles out there which are now available for reading on Amazon devices.

And for me and other authors who do their own production and sales, it means that there’s only one file that needs to go up on ebook sales pages.

So now having set up a shiny new shop, courtesy of Payhip, where my books were neatly arranged as both EPUB and MOBI, I find I really needn’t have bothered. [UPDATE – I simplified everyone’s life by only offering the EPUB]

Anyway, take a look at the store, poke around, kick the tyres, buy something if you want something to read, and get a 25% discount on everything using the coupon code 1B57WFAEZI (valid until 17 September 2022). And give me some feedback on things you liked, and things you didn’t like about it.

Another Mapp and Lucia fan

We’ve recently had a Waterstones bookshop open in our “city of philosophers” (Lichfield), and they kicked off what we all hope is going to be a series of book events with a signing by the Reverend Richard Coles of his mystery novel Murder Before Evensong.

Since he had been on Celebrity Mastermind with a specialist subject of the Mapp and Lucia novels, which had also been my Mastermind specialist subject in the first round, it seemed we might have something in common (we’d both played in bands in our more youthful days, though he is a much better musician than me, and had far greater success with The Communards than I did with Ersatz..

So I decided to take along two of my own Mapp and Lucia pastiches, Mapp at Fifty, and the very exclusive Captain Puffin Comes to Tilling (not available on Amazon – special edition printed for the Gathering of the Friends of Tilling last year).

Also a copy of On the Other Side of the Sky for his bedside reading.

As it happened, there were far more people at the event than I had expected. At 12:32 (start of event scheduled for 12:30) the shop had sold out of Murder Before Evensong, so I bought a couple of the Rev Coles’s non-fictions, and joined the 40–50-strong queue.

When my time came, we actually managed to have a little chat, and I’d pre-signed one of his books with Major Benjy’s favourite shout of “Quai Hai!” and he did the same for me.

So a good time was had by all.

The Reverend Richard Coles and me at Waterstones Lichfield, with some of my books.

Should I have written this book?

After reading accounts of what the subprime crisis had meant to ordinary people, I was tempted, or perhaps even inspired to write a story about it.

I imagined someone who’d been abroad on military service, with little knowledge of what was actually happening in his home country (the USA), coming home and discovering what had happened to his family and friends, and taking revenge. Since the subprime crisis largely affected people of colour, I decided that the protagonist should be African-American and the family should come from suburban Ohio. [note: although the book is written using US spellings such as ‘color‘, this article uses UK spellings; ‘colour‘.]

For an opposite number, out to stop the revenge killings, I chose a financial journalist working in New York City. And they would be female and gay.

Now, I had saddled myself with a lot of what is often terms “cultural appropriation” there:

  • I am not American – I have never even lived in America for more than a couple of weeks at a time
  • I am not a person of colour
  • I have never served in the USMC, or any branch of any military, other than as an RAF cadet at school
  • I’ve never been to Ohio
  • I’ve only been in NYC for an afternoon
  • I am not female
  • I am not gay
  • And though I do have experience of working with large news organisations, I’ve never been employed by one

But even so, I wanted to write this book. I do have friends, both in the USA and also from the USA living in Japan, whose brains I could pick, and use to check dialogue and general flavour (and American spellings). One of those who provided the most assistance was Bev Thomas, a Facebook friend, who also wrote a short guide to assist those who are in danger of losing their homes, which I included in the book as an appendix.

STOP PRESS!

I’ve just dropped the price of the ebook to $0.99 or local equivalent worldwide. Get it from Amazon, or other booksellers.

Balance of Powers features an African-American Afghan vet, Major Henry Powers, USMC, who comes home to find his sister’s house repossessed by the bank which sold her the mortgage, and his sister and her children out on the streets – somewhere. While searching for them, he meets Jeanine and her children, who have likewise been made homeless. What he finds sends him into a killing rage, and bodies pile up in his wake as he discovers the corruption and sleaze that surrounds the whole business, from mortgage salesmen up to traders in international financial houses.

Meanwhile in New York, Kendra Hampton, financial journalist, finds out more about the Wall Street murders that have spooked the trading floors. She finds herself on a collision course with Powers, which ends dramatically in New York City.

Now all of this is quite a feat of imagination, when you’re writing from Japan. I was somewhat nervous when I first put it out with an American publisher, but judging from the reviews, no one seems to have noticed my British accent.

The book also includes some relatively explicit sex scenes and sexual references, a lot of four-letter words, and quite a lot of violence – way out of my usual comfort zone. Against which, I think I produced at least three well-rounded characters:

  • Major Henry Gillette Powers: ex-USMC Afghan vet. An intelligent compassionate man moved to acts of extreme violence by what he sees around him.
  • Jeanine (other name unknown): mother of three children, now single, and made homeless through the repossession of her house.
  • Kendra Hampton: financial journalist living and working in NYC. Partner with Liz.

And some dialogue that I enjoyed writing:

“Hey! Where are you going? Downtown’s the other way.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh-oh. Every time a man says that, it means he’s thinking of dumping you.”
“Not exactly, but…”
“And that’s another one that means the same thing. Been nice knowing you, Henry. Stop the car now, so’s I can get out? Pop the trunk, let me get my things? Okay?”
“It’s not that.”

Balance of Powers: Ch 11

And also some writing of interactions that I feel pleased with:

He was more than a little intimidating – a tall, well-built black man in a beautifully-cut suit and a military air about him. He introduced himself only as “Henry”, without a last name. She noticed a Marine Corps ring on one hand, but refrained from asking any questions about it.
“Did you know Mr. Reichman?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Very cool and correct, not giving away more than he had to.
There was something vaguely familiar about his face. “Have we met?”
“I’m sure I would remember you, ma’am.” A smile which ickered briey and then vanished as if it had never been.
“Strange,” she mused. “Pardon my curiosity, but may I ask how you met Mr. Reichman?”
“We met at a social event.” This guy wasn’t going to give anything away. Something told her that uttering her eyelashes at him and using her feminine charms was going to have as much effect on him as it would do on the coffee machine in the corner.

Balance of Powers Ch 22

So all in all, it’s a book I’m pleased with. It has good characters, a decent plot, a message that doesn’t beat you over the head, and a style that perhaps disguises the origin of its author.

Was it really 14 years ago?

airport bank board business

I’m referring to the large financial disaster, which brought about the demise of some of the largest financial institutions in the world, and affected the lives of many. At the time I was living in Japan, where the crisis caused by the securitisation of bad loans was known as “The Lehman Shock”, Lehman Brothers being one of the most prominent casualties of this seismic event.

I was working on the fringes of the financial world, having worked in two major non-Japanese financial institutions, and working for a Japanese bank at the time, but I was minimally affected, though I lost out on a contract to pre-edit Bear Stearns’ investor prospectus prior to the issue of a Japanese version.

However, several of my friends within the financial services industry were affected, and I came to learn of the hardship caused by the dishonest practices of the lenders who took advantage of their clients to earn a fast buck. Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is an excellent introduction to all this (the movie, not so much, in my opinion). In any event, it spurred me into writing two books. Here’s something about the first one.

At the Sharpe End

This was my lecture at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, of which I subsequently became a member, where I introduced the book to a number of people, both Japanese and foreign residents of Japan. It’s quite long, but I think it’s worth watching.

I started to write this some time before the 2008 crash. It was based loosely around what I knew of the financial industry from my own experience, and the experiences of my friends.

It concerns a freelance consultant living in Tokyo (I always say that the protagonist, Kenneth Sharpe, is not me, but I could not have created him without my experiences) who finds himself in possession of a secret technology that allows him to make money in large quantities (technologies very similar to this technology actually exist now – fiction prefiguring fact).

(You can find the book for sale here)

Anyway, for the plot to be interesting, the hero can’t just waltz off into the sunset with his pockets bulging with cash – there must be something to hold the reader’s interest. In this case, I really wanted an external catastrophe that prevented the technology from doing its thing, and so guess what I chose? I was living in Japan, a country with frequent earthquakes and a reliance on nuclear power for much of its energy needs.

March 11, 2011

Yes, I chose an earthquake which wrecked a nuclear power station. This was in 2007/early 2008, several years before the Fukushima disaster. I don’t claim enormous credit for predicting this. I’m not a prophet. The Hamaoka power station, which was the one I described as being wrecked, is situated on the junction of three fault lines. In my opinion, a bloody stupid place to build a fault line. I also did not take account of tsunami action. Incidentally, I was convinced at one point that my wife and I, along with thousands more, were going to die from radiation poisoning. We were lucky that was not the case, though I probably have absorbed more radiation than if I had been living in the UK at the time.

However, after writing this section, along came the Lehman Shock, which made my earthquake rather redundant. I therefore had to change the story a bit, and also, given the time of the year, had to change some of the details in the story to reflect this (heaters went off, air-conditioners went on, etc.). I also incorporated some of the conversations that I’d had with my financial friends in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where I launched the book (always nice to talk about your book in the places featured in the book – happened to me twice now).

The first edition didn’t incorporate the quake, but used the Lehman shock but when I republished with Inknbeans Press in 2012 (post-Fukushima), I added the parts that I had originally written, and the current editions also have .

Anyway, a lot of readers have found it to be a very convincing and authentic look at life in Japan for non-Japanese, as well as being a well-written thriller with lots of twists and turns, and some interesting characters.

Next, I’ll be writing about my other book that came out of the subprime crisis – Balance of Powers.

Bad blurb?

I’ve just received a list of the nominees for an award. The blurb below is for one of these, and it’s written by an established author, and published by an established firm. On Amazon, it has over 4,000 ratings, averaging four stars. This is clearly a book that people enjoy, but with this blurb, I don’t really understand why people are interested in it (names redacted).


A****, F****, E*****, and S**** are still young — but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

OK, so young people are aware of time passing. And they have sex and worry about it. And yes, young people are not perfect, and their relationships (sexual and other) ebb and flow. And they worry about all these things.

Why should I wish to read about these people? What makes them interesting or different? Is this the aim of this pedestrian blurb? To make me want to see why 4,000 Amazon readers think this is such a good book? I’m sure that a better blurb would sell more copies.

“Standing in the last lighted room before the darkness” – it’s a beautiful phrase, and one that many people will relate to. I think many generations feel that they’re the last hope of humanity, whether it be battling the evil Hun in the Great War, or the Nazis in the continuation of that conflict, or marching and protesting with CND about nuclear weapons, or even superglueing themselves to the M25 to raise awareness of climate change. So why are these four young people different? I’m not interested.

A book’s blurb blurb needs to show us why this book is so different from so many other books on the market (Amazon carries over 10,000,000 titles). This prose above just makes my heart sink, and excites me as much as a half-finished bowl of cornflakes.

https://i0.wp.com/freebie.photography/office/pen_notebook.jpg?resize=561%2C373
Time to start again with a blank sheet

Oops! False start…

Apologies.

I uploaded the EPUB version of On the Other Side of the Sky to the Amazon Kindle convertor and all seemed to be OK. No error message, EPUB looked great on my Kobo. I don’t own a Kindle and none of the pieces of emulation software seem to do their job on my computer.

However, when I could finally see the preview on screen following the release of the book (KDP offers an on-screen preview, but never seems to allow you to see the results of your latest upload, taking you straight to the pricing page once you’ve uploaded the new version) – all my fancy fonts had been stripped out (with no warning – thank you, Amazon) and so the nice little squiggly doodles that I’d carefully inserted came out as M and u.

In addition, it seemed that the InDesign TOC creation process had fouled up, putting Part headers at the end of the preceding chapter. Even going into the source code with Calibre, and cutting and pasting (and editing TOC files and the CSS files) didn’t seem to fix it.

So… start again with Vellum. A pain, but it works. Export from InDesign to RTF, open in Word, save as DOCX and import into Vellum, tidying up all the chapter and section divisions as I go. So as of today (December 1) the new edition is with Amazon having passed the initial checks. With luck you’ll be able to get it tomorrow. Same with Smashwords (Kobo, Apple, B&N, etc.).

On the Other Side of the Sky

A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane


How big should a book be?

I don’t mean “how many pages?”, but “how tall and wide should a book be?”. One problem that I’ve seen with a lot of books recently, especially self-published books, is that they’re too big to fit comfortably into a pocket or a bag.

Sometimes, this seems to be done in order to reduce the number of pages in a book, and therefore bring down the cost (the people who do this are probably the ones who use as small a typeface as possible in order to save space, and who also take the print right to the edge of the paper).

The printers I use for my books, Ingram Spark, happily have a wide range of trim sizes (the technical term for the page size of a book. Not every kind of paper is available in every size (there’s a choice between white, creme, and now something called “groundwood” which I’ve used for my latest, which has come out really nicely, and most of these sizes are paperback only, a few with hard covers and dust jackets. KDP, Amazon’s self-publishing service, offers a subset of these trim sizes.

Now, the cost to me of a hard cover is twice that of a paperback, even before I’ve paid the setup costs, and by the time I’ve factored in the very hefty discount that retailers demand, there’s really no incentive other than vanity for producing a hardcover for adult titles (but see below with regard to children’s books).

However, since I can choose the trim size, I’ve avoided the almost ubiquitous 6″ x 9″ and 5″ x 8″ options (sorry, since Ingram is an American company, they work in antique units for the most part) format which seems to be common to many books. I also, for the most part, tend to avoid the DIN A series of paper formats (1:1.41 ratio) which are OK for paper sheets, but don’t, IMHO, work for books.

When I started to produce On the Other Side of the Sky (at the top of this page) I decided to make it as close as possible to a “standard” or “classic” paperback size, whatever that might be. So I carefully measured up a Penguin, and designed around that. One thing about Ingram Spark is that they ask for a margin of 36pt (3p or 0.5″) on each side of the text block, so if you make your trim size small, remember to knock 72pt (6p or 1″) off each dimension for the text block.

Even so there are two of my titles where I felt that it was a good idea to make a minibook: Unknown Quantities, and my two Untime stories bound together in one volume:

And the reaction has been really positive. The people who have seen and handled the two above seem to love the small size – “a book you can take with you”. And for On the Other Side of the Sky, those who have seen advance copies have said about the paperback that it is a “real book, isn’t it? I can read it in bed”. Perhaps slightly insulting to an author who took many months to produce it, but flattering to the designer who took the words and set them in print. Very gratifying to have these decisions endorsed by readers.

But sometimes it’s a good idea to go slightly odd. For the hardcover of the anthology of our Sherlock Ferret series (hardcover comes into its own for children’s titles (the purchaser the reader is not always the reader and children’s books get a lot of wear and tear), I decided that a square page format would be eye-catching and practical, given Andy’s wonderful illustrations which need to be shown off to their best advantage, rather than being tucked away in a corner.

Feels good…

But it will feel better when they’re in the hands of readers and reviewers.

All ready for the gig on the 25th – if you’re in the Lichfield area and you are interested, take yourself off to the Erasmus Darwin site, and book your ticket now. Places are limited (COVID).

If you can’t make it, consider placing a pre-order on Amazon or even asking your local bookstore to order it (ISBN 9781912605750).

November 25 – a date for your diary

If you’re in Lichfield on November 25th, come along to Erasmus Darwin House at 6pm for a glass or two of mulled wine, a mince pie, and a good yarn.

For me, as the author, it’s incredibly exciting to be reading my fictional story in the real-life location where so many of the events in the book take place.

Jonathan Oates (“Jono”) will be hosting an event in which I shall be reading from and introducing On the Other Side of the Sky, my novel which blends local historical characters with fiction, and a splash of the paranormal.

£7.50 to include mulled wine and mince pie. Signed advance copies of the book will be offered at a reduced price, as well as copies of Jono’s book on the history of Lichfield. Tickets available for purchase here.

Book early – numbers are limited (COVID precautions).

It’s coming together

On the Other Side of the Sky is coming together nicely. Currently going through it with the assistance of a friend, weeding out all the typos, and also minor details of plot and character which don’t seem to hang together very well.

A friend from the USA has suggested a glossary, to provide a little background information on people and topics that may be unfamiliar to some readers, so I’ve been busy with that.

I now have a design for the interior of the book, and several graphical elements, all of which are meant to evoke something of an 18th-century feel to the book, and which I should be able toinclude in the ebook as well. It’s going to be a very pretty piece of work indeed (in my opinion).

The photo is a mockup of the cover (printout of the design, and wrapped around a book of roughly the same thickness (just under 2.5cm, with 380 pages). In fact, I’ve slightly changed the spine from the photo above, so that it stands out a bit better:

The other books are there just to provide a comparison of size and of other designs. The back blurb is basically there – I don’t see it changing very much:

And the print and ebook editions will be available on the same day – December 1, 2021.

Price for the ebook will be £4.99 and Amazon US has it at $6.82 for pre-order. The US Amazon has some more information about the book and its writing than the UK site. The paperback will be available for pre-order soon.

There’s also a very new Facebook page about this book, where I will be writing bits and pieces about the content.

A rich source of new material

I’m coming to the end of The Other Side of the Sky (at least the first draft), and it’s proving to be a voyage of discovery for me. I’m 90,000 words into the story and there are probably another 10,000 to go.

There’s a lot of mysticism in parts of this book – of the 18th century kind. I have been reading a lot of alchemical texts, and have been surprised by what I have discovered. I had, like many of us, I suppose, always considered alchemy to be concerned with turning base metals into gold, and perhaps discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (the picture is by Joseph Wright of Derby, who appears as a character in my book, and is a detail of his painting of an alchemist, sometimes known as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone), which would grant eternal life or something to its possessor. Instead, I’ve discovered a mass of rich analogies, many of them confusing, if not outright contradictory, and all of them obscure, referring to a path towards spiritual perfection.

It’s impossible to separate these aims, and much of the imagery, from the Rosicrucians, who likewise expressed their secret doctrines in striking and colourful imagery. and from there, I suppose I could carry forward to the best-known 18th-century secret society, the Freemasons. However, I’ve decided not to go there.

Instead, I’ve chosen to go backwards, to an even earlier source of mystical spiritual growth, Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Now, Kabbalah is far from being a simple subject. It speaks in analogies, and has many forms, but the underlying concepts are those of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, as far as I can make out. So I’m not speaking as an expert but as an outsider looking into a new world.

One view of the Sefirot

The Sefirot

This is a part of Kabbalah which has really attracted my attention, the Sefirot (there are many alternative transliterations), the ten energies (actually, there’s an eleventh “shadow” energy at the intersection of Keter, Binah and Chokhmah).

By moving from the source at Keter to Malkhut, one attains a realisation. It’s also possible to travel upwards, it seems, through to a union with the divine.

The links between these energies are typically associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and even with cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack (this is a retroactive association, and was never made by Kabbalists, it appears).

But it also seems possible to link the Sefirot in other ways – paths which are in some way considered diabolical by many.

Here’s another view of the Sefirot which includes the letters associated with the links between the energies, and also includes Da’at, the intersection of Bina and Chockmah.

This diagram is sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is the subject of a lot of commentary and discussion. Even though there is a fair amount of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered from this tree by the non-adept, it would be possible, I am sure, to spend years studying it, with all the associations that have been made (many of them probably spurious or irrelevant). I’ve just come across a wonderfully paranoid conspiracy theory version which includes the Templars (of course), Akenahten, Freemansons, Jesuits, and puts the USA in the place of Malkhut!

As well as all of this, there is a rich corpus of Jewish legends, many of which have a bearing on this aspect of Kabbalah. One I have just been reading tells of the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet all clamouring to God that they be allowed to be first in the alphabet. The one which ends up being the first (Aleph) is the one which did not shout for a place. Maybe Jesus was aware of this story when he said “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

Bringing this up to date

There are many more modern interpretations that can be made here. I mentioned that conspiracy theory just now, but there are other ways of viewing these subjects, and it’s also possible to trace the gradation from alchemy to chemistry.

It’s also possible (and it has been done several times) to place a psychoanalytic interpretation on both alchemy and Kabbalah. Carl Jung, in particular, was particularly fascinated by both as windows into archetypes and into the collective unconscious. Whether or not you believe in the more mystical elements of Jungian thought, there is much to consider.

All in all, I’ve gone on an interesting journey with this research. While I cannot accept all the elements of the alchemists of Kabbalists, I have discovered more than just plot elements – and the existence and details of aspects of Jewish mysticism have been a real eye-opener to me.

Now to finish the book…