Thursday, 8 January 2015

Beautiful Writing

I read plenty of comments and reviews from people on books who complain that the book is too slow or that the plot didn't make much sense. These may be valid criticisms but I have seen comments like this for books that I like a lot and I couldn't disagree with the comments. So I wondered what it was I liked about the books.

After only a little thought I had the answer: sometimes the writing is just breathtakingly beautiful and the plot or characters are just there as an excuse to read it. Writing can be lyrical, poetic, clever or imaginative and still be a good read even if there is little actual content.

Part of this is that I do have a certain penchant for 'nothing happens'. I love the films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (the original Russian one; I've not seen the remake). Yes they are good science fiction films but what makes them good to watch is that nothing really happens for vast amounts of viewing time - but nothing happens in such a beautiful and hypnotic way that when the point of film, the central idea, is enacted it creates something special.

Writing can be the same, but as with film, the writing has to be exception otherwise it really is just tedious to read. Two recent examples where other readers struggled are described below along with why I liked them; that may give other readers a clue if they might like the book or not.

This isn't to say that all slow books are worth it. For every gem there are any number of exceptionally tedious works; but then one person's gem is another's hell (don't get me started on Dickens).

The City & The City by China Mieville
As with all of Mieville's books this is a very intellectual idea wrapped up in a story. In this case the story revolves around a detective investigating a murder. For me the actual plot is really just a coat hanger to drape the brilliant descriptions around. As a detective story is moves very slowly and isn't particularly deft. But the joy is in the descriptions of the unique setting and the reactions of the detective as he 'treats' himself to breaking the apparent psychological conditioning of the people. Or his reactions when he is outside of the system and sees it with fresh eyes. This is all helped by no explanation of the peculiar geo-political situation of the two cities of the title and all the clues come from the hints as filtered through the eyes of the hero. I don't read this book for the plot. I read it for the descriptions.

The Court Of The Air by Stephen Hunt
I am still reading this book and taking my time but I have seen comments from readers who found it hard going. By and large they seemed to read this expecting a steampunk novel and although it is set in a sort of strange technology version of Victorian England and does have steam driven robot sentient beings I wouldn't really describe it as steam punk in any way. And again it moves slowly and here the wonder of Hunt's imagination is what keeps the book alive. I like books set in alternative universes where things are a little different to ours, but this really does push it to the limits. It's not that things are mostly similar but with some interesting differences; rather nearly everything different and it's just the flavour that seems Victorian. There are little traces of history that run parallel to ours and teasing those out while enjoying the huge imagination at work to create such a deep and detailed world is what this book is about. I know that at the end the various threads will come together and there will be a climactic and action-packed ending but until then, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Reports of poor Kindle sales from Waterstones

This was inspired by this article in the Telegraph where Tim Waterstone claims that Kindle sales have 'disappeared'. The reporter then goes on to essentially predict that eBooks have had their day.

There are number of this about this article that annoyed me, but first clearly eReader sales are going to be flattening; they are really only useful for those of us that are avid and continual readers and who are interested in seeking out new books. They are not aimed at casual readers and that limits the market. Once the market reaches saturation (and it probably has) then any further sales will merely be upgrades or replacements for existing eReaders.

However let's be clear: Tim Waterstone is in the business of selling real books from real (and therefore expensive to operate) book shops. He is going to take every opportunity to push the idea that physical print copies are winning the 'war' (there is no war). Getting into bed with Amazon to sell the Kindle direct probably made a fair bit of margin for a few years but it was never going to be a long term source of income.

The reporter on the story also then uses specific examples of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble (reminder: real, expensive book shops interested only in selling physical copies of books) to extrapolate to the end of the eReader.

But what about eBooks? Surely all those people who already have eReaders must be buying eBooks? Well according to the figures quotes by Barnes and Noble in the article, they did 2.2bn in physical book sales but 'only' 300m in eBooks. A damning figure surely? But if you look closer, that is maybe a little above expectations (at least my expectations).

The problem with all eBooks produced by the major publishing houses (who after all is primarily what Waterstones and Barnes & Noble stock) is that they are no cheaper to consume on eBook. And given the choice between spending 7.99 on an eBook and the same on a physical book I'll have the physical book every time. And as discussed above, not everyone is interested in having an eBook. So sales of eBooks that are 14% of physical books actually looks pretty good.

It is interesting that in this article there are no figures quotes from Amazon. Amazon scores over the traditional retailers in two areas: firstly it can discount the books so that the eReader versions start to become economical to buy and also they carry independent authors, whose books sell for 0.99 or 1.99. Cheap enough just to buy and stick on the eReader and read at leisure. This is where the real eBook market is.

Now I don't like the way the Kindle is tied to Amazon so tightly but it does mean it's easy to use. Personally I use a Kobo and have all the conversion/DRM management tools I need for converting to and from any format I require. But what is Amazon's view on how eBooks are selling? This is far more important since they are consumed by the customer in very much the same way - navigate to the website, select the book and click to order. The only difference is that the physical book has to be posted (or shipped by drone of course) whereas the eBook is immediately available whereever you are (surely a real plus point if you unexpectedly run out of reading material).

So the article tells the story as seen from the viewpoint of a couple of businesses who dipped their toes into the eBook world when it is at odds with their primary business model; unsurprisingly they talk down the future of eReaders and eBooks. Yes, currently they will not take over from physical books but they are far from dead as I'm sure the sales of books from independent authors would reveal.

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year Resolutions

I'm not a big one for New Year Resolutions but now is the time of year when every blogger trots out an update about them so I ought to say something.

In fact I'm not big on waiting until particular times to change something or start something new; if something's worth doing why not start it immediately? It's the same at work - if I have an idea for something I will mention it there and then, not wait for my annual review to bring it up. Why wait?

I do have a list of things I would like to achieve in 2015, although nothing that I would call a resolution in any way whatsoever.

I would definitely like to read and review an awful lot more books; I have Goodreads to refer back to to see if I can beat 2014s (woeful) tally. I'd also like to read more independent authors and a wider range of work. They say travel broadens the mind, well so does reading widely different books.

I'd like to blog a lot more; I think of things to write and then when I sit down at the keyboard they seem rather trite (as indeed does this). But then surely that is the essence of blogging? I'm going to aim for one a week at least but there's no guarantees in this game.

Following a discussion today I'd like to learn more British Sign Language. Fitting that in between everything else is tricky especially as - with learning any language - it must be somewhat immersive. However I'm sure games of sign language I-Spy with my youngest son will continue.

So there are my vague plans for 2015. Hopefully you have somewhat better and firmer goals than mine. All power to you to see them through.