Sunday, 28 October 2012

A grumble about Kindle

A few months ago I bought a Kindle. It was prompted by publishing my collection of fiction as an e-book, but I also thought it would solve my problem of a growing number of paperbacks cluttering up the house until I got around to a cull.

But I’ve bought very few e-books, because Amazon charge as much as they do for the paperbacks for new titles. I have even spotted new hardbacks on promotion in shops at much lower prices than the Kindle version. Given that an e-book doesn’t require the printing and distribution costs of a hard or paperback, it’s pretty clear that someone is taking a lot more money for every one that’s sold.

I don’t know how it’s broken down, but suspect the authors don’t get any more from the larger margin taken on each sale. And as a consumer who has to watch his spending I’m not inclined to drop more money into the coffers of the publisher or Amazon. So I’ve largely confined my Kindle purchases to old books at low cost, those from long dead and out of copyright authors, and the self-publishers who, like me, are willing to sell at a much lower price than those for high profile writers.

I’m not sure how the pros and cons will turn out. Maybe more people will begin looking to self-published writers for a less expensive read, which might mean a few repeats of the ‘Fifty Shades…’ phenomenon. But there’s a growing number of us competing for attention, and it’s difficult for people to make the choices without a reliable third party opinion. Or maybe people will pay the same price as for a paperback, the publishing industry will make more money and invest it in new authors. I can’t help feeling sceptical about the chances of that happening. Or maybe they will ultimately cut the price of e-books to reflect the lower production costs. Maybe.

But for now I’ll continue going to the library and buying cut price books, and rationing the number of times I fork out the full price for a download to my Kindle.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sansom over Mantel: genre fiction works

All the fuss over Hilary Mantel winning the Booker Prize for the second time for her second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bringing Up The Bodies, stirred up a mild irritation that there’s been so much praise for a work that’s been second best in its class.

My overwhelming reaction to reading the first in the series, Wolf Hall, was to wonder what all the fuss had been about. It took a lot of pages to tell the story about how Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister and helped him to dump his wife for Anne Boleyn, and although I was looking forward to the read I never really became engaged in the book. I found it slow, too wrapped up in its subtleties to sustain the narrative, and stopped caring about the characters and the outcome with a couple of hundred pages to go (although habit forced me to finish the book).

A while later I picked up Dissolution, the first of C J Sansom’s books about Matthew Shardlake, a fictional lawyer who’s drawn towards Henry VIII’s court by working for Cromwell. It deals with a lot of the same themes of Mantel’s books – the ambitions and intrigues of individuals around the king, the violent political dynamic of the Reformation, the tension between reason and faith in the minds of intelligent people of the time – but does it a lot better. Dissolution, and the four books that have followed in the series so far, convey all this through a rattling good story in which it is easy to become immersed. But the literary establishment and the media don’t make anything like the same fuss over Sansom.

I don’t want to dismiss Mantel on the strength of reading one book, but I’m sure that her reputation rests heavily on the fact that she writes in a way that impresses people who regard themselves as the guardians of literary merit. They like a book that takes an effort to understand and isn’t an obvious source of entertainment, because it assures them that they are cleverer than most readers, and they can write in The Guardian or speak on Radio 4 about how much they’ve been impressed.

By contrast, Sansom writes genre fiction. His books are often found on the crime fiction shelves, although they could just as easily be classed as political thrillers, and they use a murder to provide the springboard for a strong narrative. They hook the reader early with a story that makes it easy to read, and convey their observations on fear, faith and power without demanding a big effort.

There are other genre writers who have written great books that convey as much about human behaviour and societal tensions as any Booker winner. Ruth Rendell provides a shining example, especially in her guise as Barbara Vine. But they write genre fiction so they’re not taken as seriously by the people who hand out these big prizes.

I look forward to the day that C J Sansom wins the Booker Prize, but I suspect it will never come. 

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Orthodox autocracy

I just listened to a Radio 4 documentary on the increasingly tight relationship between the Putin government and hardliners in the Russian Orthodox Church. It revolves around the Pussy Riot case but highlights a trend in Russian society that is extremely scary.

A series of religious figures and politicians declare that any criticism of the church threatens Russian society and amounts to a crime and deserves some serious punishment. It all sounds faintly deranged and medieval, spoken in the quiet voices of those confident in their authority, and it’s made worse by the fact that they have the support of a big proportion of the public and they are slowly getting their way. One of the most powerful nations on Earth is absorbing the church into an increasingly oppressive autocracy.

For years I’ve sympathised with liberals and religious sceptics in the States, who if they live in the wrong part of the country endure some serious stick for not going along with the fundamentalist orthodoxy. But at least they’re living in a democracy, and for now at least the framework of law in the country is relatively sane. What’s going on in Russia is worse, the criminalisation of secular expression, not least because a large part of the population seems ready to go along with it.

Those of us who live in secular, civilised societies can shudder, turn away and get on with our lives, comfortable in knowing that we can criticise a church without ending up in court. But Russia’s still a major power, it has economic and military influence, and if the church begins to dominate the country’s ethical dialogue it can plant some dangerous seeds for the future. Just think of Iran with a larger army, a nuclear bomb, and a bunch of billionaires pressing flesh with the powerful all over the world.

I don’t know what we in the West can do about it, and suspect the answer is nothing – but I hope it doesn’t last.

Mark Say's collection of fiction, Perversities of Faith, is available on and Also check out